The Bittersweet Relationship with Sugar

by Rachel Stuck, RDN

Our relationship with sugar is bittersweet.

Sweet treats like cake, ice cream, and pastries are a common addition to parties, celebrations, and the office lunch room, and while it is well known that sugar can wreak havoc on overall health, it is not easy to completely avoid sugar. 

Treating yourself to something sweet every so often is not a crime, but problems occur when we eat too much sugar. The sugar found naturally in fruit, dairy, and vegetables is different than added sugars found in cereals, granola, juice, coffee creamer, soda, candy, pastries, and the list goes on. Sugar found naturally in food often comes packaged with both fiber and nutrients unlike the common sugar additives in the list below. Fiber is important because it helps control blood glucose levels by slowing the digestion of sugar and contributes to an increased feeling of fullness. Vegetables and fruit are both sugar-containing foods that are a good source fiber. While vegetables only contain a small amount of sugar, fruit has about twenty grams of sugar per serving.   

Common names for sugar: sucrose, dextrose, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, honey, agave, brown sugar, raw sugar cane, and fruit nectar.  

Review the nutrition label and ingredients of packaged foods to sift out added sugar from the ingredients that naturally contain sugar. First, look for sugar additives in the ingredient list (see list above). Remember that the placement in the ingredient list is also important. Ingredients listed first are the ones found in greatest amount, followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts. Then look to the total number of sugar on the nutrition label and compare it to the ingredient list to determine where most of the sugar is coming from. 

Homemade and restaurant desserts will not have a nutrition label, making it difficult to portion out a dessert to fit your daily needs. Consider sharing, choosing an option that is a smaller portion, or looking for desserts with strong flavors, like a small scoop of lemon sorbet, to help control your total sugar intake and avoid overindulging. 

Ultimately, it is best to skip restaurant desserts and opt for a more simple sweet tooth fix. Two to three squares of seventy percent dark chocolate, a handful of trail mix, a serving of berries, or a cup of your favorite herbal tea with honey and milk are a few simple options that will help satisfy your sweet tooth without going overboard.  

Feeling like mixing up your own gut healthy sweet treat? Check out the recipe below for a gut healthy treat that hits the spot without the guilt.  

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