Recently, several clients have asked about how to tell if a food is high sugar. They always seem to ask about fruit – “isn’t fruit high in sugar?”

In my practice, I draw the line between two kinds of sugar – naturally occurring in the food, and added. I’m OK with naturally occurring sugar. If you eat a lot of fruit and log your food in an online program or app, it is going to look like your sugar intake is high. There are also naturally occurring sugars in some vegetables, dairy, and whole grains. However, since those sugars are naturally occurring in the food, I’m OK with it.

I get concerned is with sugar that is added to food – usually processed foods. When looking at a food label to tell if a food is “high sugar” there are two places to look. The first is the nutrition facts panel. Under “Carbohydrates” is a listing for “Sugars.” How do you know if the number of grams listed is “high”?  Divide the number of grams of sugar by 4 and that tells you how many teaspoons of sugar are in the product. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) per day for women and 9 teaspoons for men (36 grams).

You also have to consider the food – is it a trail mix with dried fruit? If so, the sugar may be naturally occurring in the dried fruit. However, you also need to look at the ingredient list (I’m constantly surprised at how much sugar is added to food – even dried fruits!). If you see sugar, or one of the “hidden” names of sugar, in the first three ingredients it is considered a “high sugar food.” Not sure all the “hidden” names of sugar? Here’s a list from the Harvard School of Public Health with a some of them.

When trying to determine if a food is “high sugar,” we have to do some detective work. I’d encourage you to start reading those nutrition facts panels and ingredient lists. When I was shopping a couple of weeks ago, I found some tomato sauce (just tomato sauce, not pasta sauce) that was filled with sugar! Being an informed consumer makes you an empowered consumer!

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