Excess sugar in our diets is definitely one of the hottest nutrition topics around. It gets spoken about in the news by doctors, nutritionists, dentists and everyone in between. The biggest reason it gets so much attention is because high sugar intake has been linked to everything from obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, all the way to dental cavities. While sugar itself is naturally found in things like fruits and dairy products, it’s really the added sugar in foods that is contributing to excess calories, inflammation, and unfortunately carries no nutritional value. The consequences of added sugar are plenty enough reason for parents to worry about the amount their children are consuming. And although many of us would like to reduce the amount we are consuming our family’s diet, it isn’t always as easy as just reducing the amount of desserts we are eating. Added sugar is actually hidden in so many everyday, common foods that we eat, ranging from pasta sauce to yogurt, so let’s take a close look at how we can get some of this sugar out of you and your family’s diet!
What is added sugar and where do you find it?
Added sugars are defined as any sugars used in processing and preparing foods or beverages, or added to foods at the table or eaten separately, including table sugar, syrups, fructose and honey. On the ingredient label, added sugar may appear under many different names (there are 60 of them!), i.e. corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, malt sugar, raw sugar, corn sweetener, brown sugar, honey, syrup, glucose-fructose and sugar molecules ending ins “ose”. These are the names we need to look for on the ingredient lists of foods.
The good news is, added sugars do not include sugars that naturally occur in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. These sugars are natural, provide us with energy, and are bound to other nutrients like fibre which makes eating them a healthy choic
How much sugar should we be having?
The average Canadian is consuming an average 26 teaspoons of sugar a day. The World Health Organization and the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Canada has stated that added sugar should make up no more than 10% of our total calories (ideally keep it down at around 5% of total calories). This equates to no more than approximately 5-10 teaspoons of added sugar daily (or 50g) for an adult on a 2000 kcal diet. For children under two years of age, the recommendation is to avoid added sugars altogether, as these children have a very low calorie intake and early introduction of added sugar may lead to a taste preference for sweets over other healthy food. Almost half of the average daily sugar intake of children from 1-8 years and adolescents from 9-18 years old come from milk, fruit juice, regular soft drinks and fruit drinks.
Some foods are more obviously full of added sugar than others. For example, any “sweet” food or drink, such as soft drinks, candy, cookies and desserts. However, so many other “non sweet” foods boast quite a bit of added sugar that isn’t quite as easy to catch, such as children’s cereals, pasta sauces, salad dressings, peanut butter and yogurt. When the majority of your foods are processed, it’s easy to go overboard on added sugar and surpass the recommended amount per day, therefore putting yourself at risk for health problems.
What are the best ways to reduce added sugar in our diets?
As a mom myself, I know added sugar is everywhere for us – from school treats, lunch box items, snacks out in between busy activity schedules and in food advertising. One way we like to combat this is by involving my children in the whole eating experience from planning meals, making a grocery list, shopping, preparing and cooking the food. Often when we’re shopping, it’s a minefield trying to balance purchases high in added sugar while still being reasonable in our expectations. My children will sometimes try to persuade me to buy the ‘latest’ food that their friends have in their packed lunches. Although sometimes it’s ok to give in, I use this as an opportunity to read ingredient lists together and have a discussion around better choices to this prepackaged food as well as compromises that can be made. Sometimes we end up with a favourite fruit or vegetable being chosen instead, or baking something at home where we can control the amount of sugar being added.
It’s all about the compromises and balance, so keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at of my top 5 tips for reducing sugar in your family’s diet:
1. Less processed, more whole foods!
Food manufacturers add sugar to food when they are processing it for many reasons; sugar is inexpensive, it improves the taste of the food, it provides and bulk and texture, and it can act as a preservative. When we decrease the amount of heavily processed food we eat and instead eat foods in their natural state or that are minimally modified, i.e. a whole foods, we instantly decrease the amount of added sugar in our diet. A whole food usually contain just one ingredient (e.g. tomato), but eating foods that combine multiple whole foods together (e.g. tomato, water, garlic), is just as healthy. A good example is fruit snacks or fruit leathers vs. whole fruit. Although they may contain some vitamins, they typically have more than one added sugar source and the sugar is present in such a concentrated form, that it’s easy to go overboard on sugar intake. By having a real piece of fruit instead, you would have to eat much more whole fruit before getting to the same sugar level most people consume when eating a “serving size” of a typical processed fruit snack. For instance, Welch’s fruit snacks contain 80 calories, 15 g of sugar and 0 g fibre per serving, while on the other hand, a half cup of apple slices has 1.5 grams of fiber, 30 calories and 5.5 grams of sugar. The fiber in a piece of fruit also increases fullness.
Another example is canned pasta sauce vs. homemade pasta sauce. A canned pasta sauce almost always has sugar listed in it’s top 2-3 ingredients, whereas with a homemade sauce consisting of just crushed tomatoes with spices and perhaps a bit of salt cuts out all that extra sugar.
2. Discover new “sweet” alternatives
You can use whole foods like fruits, spices or various extracts to contrast any tart flavours or to “sweeten” up a dish, without adding pure sugar itself. A great place to try this is at breakfast. Breakfast cereals and commercially flavoured yogurts can have multiple teaspoons of sugar per serving. Some of the more popular brands of flavoured yogurt have up to 36g of sugar per serving! Yikes! What we doing our house is buy plain yogurt and add fruit to it (such as berries), which sweeten it right up without having to add processed sugar. You can also try adding dried fruit such as dried cranberries and dates to oatmeal and other ‘plain’ cereals to add that sweetness you are looking for. Another great idea for hot cereals is to increase their flavour with cinnamon or nutmeg, or a drop or two of a pure extract such as almond, vanilla, orange or lemon – experiment
3. Watch those beverages!
Sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, sport drinks, juice (even those cold-pressed detox juices!), iced teas, etc. are the biggest source of added sugar to the North American diet. There is 24g (6 teaspoons) of sugar in a glass of orange juice and 39g (10 teaspoons) of sugar in just once can of Coke. That’s why water should always be your first choice when your are thirsty. Leave the juice and other sweet beverages to special occasions, not as a daily drink. To liven up your water, try a sparkling water or flavouring plain water by adding cut fruit, like oranges or cucumbers, or herbs like basil and mint – the ideas are endless! An idea that kids will love is placing a single slice of strawberry, a blueberry or a raspberry in an ice cube tray with the water. Freeze and serve the ice cubes in the water! When drinking milk, always aim for a plain v.s. chocolate milk, or again, go half & half!
4. Sweeten things yourself
I’m not saying go completely sugar free by any means, but when you make more food at home, you can control the amount of sugar you add to it. A great example is sweetening your yogurt yourself, by adding a bit of honey or maple syrup (or fruit as mentioned above!), in quantities that you can control. To help make the transition from a commercially sweetened yogurt to less sweet a bit easier if you’re not used to it, start by mixing half vanilla yogurt with half plain yogurt. Gradually reduce the vanilla yogurt until you are eating just the plain yogurt with your fruit. Lots of baking recipes call for copious amounts of sugar – more than what is really needed. So don’t be afraid of reducing the amount that is called for. Start with 2/3 of the sugar needed and taste test. The next time ½ the amount…how low can you go? Or you can do a substitution. Dates and fruit purees can be swapped for sugar and increase the nutritio2n value of your baking. When using fruit as a substitute for sugar the riper the better
5. Redefine desserts!
While there is always a time and a place for a rich, pure sugar filled dessert (chocolate especially!), redefine your everyday dessert to include a variety of other naturally sweet options. A baked pear with cinnamon, sliced banana with a drizzle of honey, trail mix with small pieces of dark chocolate or yogurt bits, or how about getting in the habit of just fruit after a meal? Try out these frozen nutty banana nibblers with only two ingredients that kids will love!
Need help finding ways to transition your family to a more real, whole food based diet? Why not start with my FREE download for my Top 5 Recipes for Busy Families – get it here!