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Hey, Sugar

What's the deal with added sugars?

Julie Andrews would be proud. Photo by Mary Reed.

If you read ingredient labels on your trail food, you may see sugar used to sweeten your snacks. Corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice concentrate, high fructose corn syrup, honey, sucrose, brown rice syrup, molasses — the list goes on. What’s the deal?

What are added sugars? Added sugars are sugars added to food and beverages during processing or preparation. Added sugars should not be confused with the sugars that exist naturally in foods such as fruit and milk. Added sugars appear most often in (non-diet) soda, candy and fruit drinks. No real surprise there. However, sugars may also be added to salad dressing, bread, oatmeal, energy bars, granola, crackers and even some dried fruit.

What happens to added sugars in your body? Added sugars are carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, along with proteins and fats, provide your body with the energy, vitamins, minerals and fiber it needs to function properly. Carbohydrates can be simple or complex. Complex carbohydrates include starches that digest slowly and are found in whole grain breads and cereals, beans and vegetables. Simple carbohydrates, which include added sugars, are found naturally in fruits and milk. They digest quickly in the body. Although ultimately both types of carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and used by the body for energy, foods that are high in added sugars are often have poor nutritionally quality.

What’s the difference? Is there a difference between any of these added sugars, either nutritionally or how they are processed by the body? “For the most part, no,” says physician and registered dietitian Christine Gerbstadt, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “There are a few minor exceptions. For example, blackstrap molasses might contain trace minerals, such as iron, but ultimately (the sugar) is a simple carbohydrate that is seen by the body as four calories per gram.” Although some added sugars, such as honey or maple syrup, may be less processed than table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, they all boil down to pretty much the same thing calorically and nutritionally.

How much added sugar can you have? The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies the calories that come from added sugars as discretionary calories. Essential calories are the minimum needed to meet your nutrient needs, say, 1,700 calories out of a 2,000-calorie diet. The rest – about 265-510 calories per day, varying by gender, weight and activity level – are discretionary. You may decide to spend those by spreading real butter on your toast or savoring a soft French cheese. Or you may spend them on added sugars. As a point of reference, a 12-ounce serving of non-diet soda has 155 discretionary calories (more than half of your discretionary calories if you’re an active female). If you read the nutrition label on that can of soda, you’ll see that it contains no fat, no protein and no complex carbohydrates. All of the discretionary calories in soda consist of added sugar.

Do added sugars belong in your backpack? What should you pack for an outing to keep energy level steady and function optimally throughout the day? Greg Avellana, a registered and licensed dietitian from Columbus, says to start with breakfast. “You want to have a lot of (complex) carbohydrates to start the day to make sure you are not running on empty.” As you burn calories, Greg says, you can refuel with any type of carbohydrates. You can choose simple carbohydrates in the form of added sugars from a candy bar or a granola bar, or from naturally occurring sugar like in dried fruit or yogurt. “Whatever foods you choose, especially ones that contain simple carbohydrates, make sure that the foods … are more nutrient-dense foods,” Greg advises. “Instead of grabbing a soda, grab an orange juice, which contains vitamin C, folic acid and antioxidants.”