Chances are, you’ve heard of a million different diets that all claim to be the holy grail of health. The Paleo diet, ketogenic diet, Atkins, Weight Watchers, veganism, and vegetarianism among others all promise weight loss or a healthier lifestyle, often through the elimination of a particular nutrient or a reduction in overall caloric intake. Although each affirms that they are the best thing for you, most diets fail to acknowledge one important fact: added sugar, or sugar that is added during the processing of food, is a dangerous substance for your health.
The American Heart Association, which helps educate consumers on healthy living and prevention of heart disease, recommends a daily added sugar intake of no more than 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Despite these recommendations, the average American consumes over 71 grams of added sugar per day, which is almost three times the recommended intake for women and two times the recommended intake for men.
There’s no denying that such high consumption of added sugar may be, in part, the fault of consumers. But these four schemes of the modern food industry haven’t exactly been helping Americans cut down on their added sugar intake:
- Hiding added sugar in foods advertised as healthy; sugar is often added to fat-free or reduced-fat processed foods to make up for lost flavor. A 2016 study published in Nutrition & Diabetes used data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Nutrient Database to complete a systematic comparison of the sugar content in low-fat and regular versions of foods. Their results prove this claim to be correct: the amount of added sugar was higher in the lower-fat and non-fat foods than in the regular versions of the tested foods. Take, for example, the low-fat versions of Yoplait, the most popular yogurt brand in the United States. These low-fat yogurts contain two more grams of added sugar compared to Yoplait’s standard yogurts. This may not seem like much, but imagine the elevated added sugar content after having breakfast with a serving of low-fat Yoplait yogurt, a serving of low-fat cereal, a banana, and a couple of tablespoons of low-fat Jif peanut butter in place of their standard counterparts.
- Referring to added sugar with unfamiliar terms such as “sucrose,” “dextrose,” or “fructose” on nutrition labels, effectively disguising its true identity. There are at least 61 different names for added sugar used by food companies, making it especially frustrating for a consumer to try to distinguish healthier foods from their counterparts. Take one of the granola bars from the popular “healthy” brand Clif. Their chocolate chip granola bars contain “organic brown rice syrup,” “organic cane syrup,” and “cane sugar,” which are simply overly complicated terms for added sugar. And, considering that these three sugars are within the first eight listed ingredients, it’s no wonder why these bars contain a whopping 25 grams of sugar each.
- Deliberately engineering foods so that they surpass the reward properties of traditional foods. Foods that have been altered in this way are referred to as hyper-palatable, and they contain a perfect balance of sugar, fat, salt, and flavor additives to satisfy our tastebuds. Think pizza, chocolate, ice cream, and soda- foods that reduce our self-control and cause us to overeat, and increase our consumption of unhealthy amounts of sugar, fat, and salt.
- Making highly processed foods (especially those with added sugars) less expensive and more readily available than healthier foods. The Harvard School of Public Health found that the healthiest diets cost on average about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets. And think about it: in your everyday grocery store, there are more aisles (especially towards the front of the store) dedicated to chips, ice cream, sodas, candy, cookies and the like than for fruits and vegetables. Placing heaps of candy at the cash register, for instance, is a strategy known as “impulse marketing,” which encourages spur-of-the-moment, emotion-related purchases. In fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine claims the arrangement of products in stores is the most important malleable determinant of sales. Goods placed in prominent end-of-aisle locations are typically unhealthy and account for about 30% of all supermarket sales.
In an effort to put an end to some of the malpractices listed above, the Food and Drug Administration has required manufacturers to have the added sugar content of their products listed on their nutrition facts label by January 1, 2021. But until then, added sugar will continue to stay concealed in processed foods along with its myriad of detrimental health effects, many of which can be long-term.
A surplus of added sugar affects the growth and stiffness of arteries, adding stress to the heart and causing damage over time. It is associated with obesity, inflammation, and insulin resistance, along with high triglyceride, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels- all risk factors for the development of heart disease, cancer, and type II diabetes. In fact, people who consume large amounts of added sugar are twice as likely to die of heart disease than those who regularly consume the recommended amount. And over time, overconsumption of added sugar can also increase the risk of depression, contribute to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, worsen cognitive decline, harm the kidneys, cause tooth demineralization and lead to acne.
Yet, the most condemning of all the health detriments caused by the overconsumption of added sugar is the neurological impacts. Added sugar is comparable to conventional drugs in both potency and addictiveness. It is thought to be eight times more addictive than cocaine and provides the same rush of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. In addition, an immoderation of added sugar can mess with satiety and contribute to obesity; ingesting too much can induce resistance to leptin, the hormone that regulates feelings of hunger and tells the body when to stop eating.
A near mountain of added sugar is almost a staple of the conventional American diet, however, its consumption should be avoided. Although it may be cheaper and easier to eat foods with substantial amounts of added sugar (say thanks to the food industry for that!), this doesn’t change the fact that consuming an excess of it is hazardous for your health. To resist the schemes of the food industry and look out for your body, focus your energy on avoiding overly sweet foods and paying attention to the less obvious culprits like bread, yogurt, granola bars, cereals and sauces. Decreasing your added sugar intake and watching out for the tricks and traps of modern food production may just help make your life a little bit sweeter.
Featured image via Flickr.