It seems that each decade brings with it a new idea about what’s behind the obesity epidemic, chronic disease, and overall suboptimal health. As we’ve migrated from the low-fat craze of the 90s and early 2000s, sugar has become public enemy number one in recent years. You may be left wondering if sugar really is the culprit behind America’s health issues, or if it’s simply another scapegoat like fat. And if you’ve ever consulted the internet for the answer to that question, you’ve likely been assaulted with all sorts of opinions, ranging from the “real” sugar supporters to the swear-by-Splenda sector to the agave nectar aficionados. So let’s uncover the truth of sugar: what it is, how much is too much, and if that BBQ sauce you’re loving this summer is a sneaky sugar source. 

What it is:

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate (read: the quickly broken down type of carb). Okay, bear with me on some science-y terms here, I promise they matter. Grainy, white table sugar is what scientists call sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide. Di = two, right? So sucrose has to be made of two molecules. Those two molecules are glucose and fructose. So, glucose + fructose = sucrose. If glucose sounds familiar to you, it should! Glucose is your body’s number one energy provider. Fructose might be newer term for you, so when you see fructose think “fruit sugar.” If this is too much to keep track of, remember this: sugar is a simple carbohydrate that enters the blood stream quickly. 

How much is too much? The American Heart Association tells us that men should aim for no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar per day, while women shouldn’t consume more than 6 teaspoons of the sweet stuff. For those of us who don’t keep our teaspoons in our back pockets, that comes out to 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women. (As a side note, this is only talking about added sugars, not naturally occurring ones – more on those another time!)

Okay back to the BBQ sauce…

Unfortunately, sugar isn’t only found in obvious sources like cookies, candies, and sodas. In fact, even savvy shoppers can be caught off-guard by this simple carbohydrate. Here are some of the most common added sugar culprits in our diets and alternatives to consider: 

  • Sauce (BBQ, pasta, pizza, marinara, etc): Try making your own sauces at home. For e.g., a jar of tomato paste plus vinegar plus all the Italian herbs and spices you own makes a delicious red sauce. 
  • Cereal: Fiber is your friend here. Your best bet is a whole grain, fiber-packed brand with minimal ingredients and low in sugar. Kashi has some good options. Or, try oatmeal. 
  • “Protein” bars: Okay, I could really get on a soap box here, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll just give you some brands to check out: RX Bar, Go Macro, KIND Protein Bar, and Aloha. 
  • Yogurt: Sorry to disappoint, but plain really is the way to go here. Some of the flavored varieties even have more sugar than a donut. However, if plain really isn’t doing it for you, check out Oikos Triple Zero yogurts. 

At the end of the day, remember that one substance isn’t entirely to blame for weight and health concerns. In fact, healthy diets can and will contain some added sugar. Instead of making the sweet stuff entirely off limits, focus on a balanced diet low in processed goods and high in fiber. Ask your RD or HE for ideas on how to lower your sugar intake while still enjoying the occasional treat!