Sugar. We actually need some in our diets, but it's become a ubiquitous added ingredient found in 74% of all packaged foods, and the population as a whole regularly consumes far more than the recommended daily amount largely contributing to chronic obesity rates in children and adults and extremely high numbers of people with persistent health problems including diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease and tooth decay.
A major problem coming from the packaged food industry is the staggering amount of names and types of sugar used in thousands of products. As you'll see, it's quite difficult to stay on top of the new ingredients being churned out all the time making label reading a very daunting process.
Recommended Daily Sugar Limits for Men, Women and Children
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a max of 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women. The added sugar limits for children range between 3-6 teaspoons (12-25 grams) total per day.
In 2008 the average intake was 76.7 grams of sugar per day. That's 19 teaspoons. Shocking! No wonder so many of us are just plain unhealthy. Obviously, we need to take charge of our sugar intake and the way to do that is by learning the names of sugar, memorizing the ones we must avoid, finding the amounts we should stay under, and applying that knowledge to label-reading. We're not trying to achieve perfection, but minimizing added sugar is never a bad thing. Cutting down on processed foods would be a huge step in the right direction too.
The FDA has taken steps to require that added sugar amounts be included in the updated nutrition label design. We definitely support this initiative.
Artificial Sweeteners are Synthetic Sugar Substitutes: Know How to AVOID Them
Here's the good news: many of the sugar names are pretty obvious — there are only a handful of sweeteners you should memorize and ALWAYS avoid, and with a little label-reading practice, you'll get to know the most questionable ingredients to make quicker determinations in a pinch.
High-Intensity and Often Dangerous Artificial Sweeteners to Avoid
High-intensity sweeteners are artificially synthesized compounds that mimic the taste of sugar at rates many times the sweetness — up to 13,000 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar).
As much as possible, we stick to a path that consists of simple, unprocessed, truly natural foods. These sweeteners stray pretty far from nature and are especially questionable (oftentimes dangerous) substances that we recommend avoiding at all times:
- Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K, Ace-K, ACK) – brands include Sunett, Sweet One
In lab testing, acesulfame potassium has been found to contribute to the formation of lung and breast cancer, rare organ tumors, leukemia, and respiratory disease in rats. Acesulfame potassium also contains methylene chloride which can cause headaches, mental confusion, nausea and depression, and can negatively affect the liver and kidneys after long-term exposure.
Advantame is chemically similar to aspartame and may present the same dangerous problems.
- Aspartame (aspartyl-phenylalanine-1-methyl ester) – brands include Equal Classic, Equal-Measure, NutraSweet, NatraTaste Blue, Spoonful
Aspartame has been investigated as a possible cause of brain tumors, mental retardation, birth defects, epilepsy, Parkinson’s Disease, fibromyalgia and diabetes, and it accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. There are 90 documented negative reactions to aspartame including slurred speech, insomnia, heart palpitations, seizures and death.
- Neotame – brands include Newtame
No studies have been done to identify any long-term health implications of Neotame, but we do know it's chemically similar to aspartame and may present the same dangerous problems.
- Saccharin – brands include Equal Saccharin, Necta Sweet, Sugar Twin, Sweet'N Low, Sweet Twin
Saccharin was found to cause bladder cancer in lab rats and mice. It also stimulates the release of insulin and can cause glucose intolerance which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
- Sucralose – brands include Equal Sucralose, NatraTaste Gold, Splenda
Fundamentally, sucralose is denatured sucrose achieved by way of a chlorination process that chemically changes the structure of the sugar molecules by substituting three chlorine atoms for three hydroxyl groups. Chlorine, a known carcinogen, is a huge reason we avoid PVC plastic. It's obviously something we don't want to ingest.
TruthAboutSplenda.com reports that Splenda consumption can cause adverse effects including seizures, migraines, blurred vision, blood sugar increases and weight gain, and a scientific review of sucralose published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health shows even greater safety concerns that include DNA damage and heightened carcinogenic potential when used in cooking.
NOTE: Stevia and monk fruit are also considered high-intensity sweeteners, and they can be industrially processed, but there are completely safe and natural forms of both that are acceptable varieties of sweetener.
Sugar alcohols (polyols) are hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, however, most are industrially processed from other sugars, like from the glucose in corn starch. Interestingly, sugar alcohols don't contain any ethanol (the compound that gets you drunk) despite having the word “alcohol” in the name.
When eaten in large amounts (10-50 grams), sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect, causing bloating, intestinal gas and diarrhea. You may see a warning label about this potential side effect on products containing sugar alcohols.
Sugar Alcohols to Avoid
When sugar alcohols are industrially produced, they're categorized as artificial sugar substitutes. The following sugar alcohols are not recommended at this point in time.
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate (HSH)
- Isomalt (hydrogenated isomaltulose) – brands include DiabetiSweet + acesulfame potassium
- Maltitol (hydrogenated maltose)
- Xylitol (non-Birchwood) – brands include Xylipure, Xylosweet
Acceptable Sugar Alcohols
These three sugar alcohols can be found without the industrial processing and are fine when used sparingly. Again, there can be some intestinal distress with overuse, and we have to be mindful of the source, the manufacturing process and any additional ingredients.
Erythritol is made through a sugar fermentation process and studies even say erythritol is processed safely and doesn't cause gastric distress, so it gets a passing grade. Acceptable brands include Zero, Zerose and ZSweet.
- Birch Xylitol
This type of Xylitol is an acceptable sweetener since it's made from birch wood and not corn, and if the product you choose contains no fillers, it's a pretty safe bet. Acceptable brands include DureLife, Smart Sweet and Zveet.
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol derived from the naturally occurring glucose of stone fruits and berries. It can, however, be made from corn syrup, so it's important to limit your intake and/or know your source. Sorbitol isn't sold in bags as a sugar substitute like Xylitol, but it's a common food ingredient.
Top 10 Acceptable Sugars and Sweeteners
If we're buying packaged food and there has to be added sugar, we're always a little giddy to see one of these listed on the label. These sweeteners carry very little risk of being GMO, and they can be easily found in natural or lightly processed forms.
- Birch Xylitol – brands include DureLife, Smart Sweet and Zveet
- Coconut sugar
- Erythritol – brands include Zero, Zerose and ZSweet
- Monk fruit (Luo Han Guo, swingle fruit extract, SGFE)
- Muscovado (barbados, high molasses content)
- Real honey (raw)
- Stevia extract – brands include NOW Foods Better Stevia, SweetLeaf
- Sucanat (stands for SUgar CAne NATural, medium molasses content)
- Turbinado (raw sugar, lower molasses content)
120 Different Names and Types of Sugar
We rounded up 120 different names and types of sweetener. We knew it was bad, but we were fully shocked to see the sheer scope and magnitude of the problem!
The most commonly used sugars include sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, barley malt, dextrose, maltose and rice syrup.
- Acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K, Ace-K, ACK) – brands include Sunett, Sweet One (artificial sugar substitute)
- Advantame (artificial sugar substitute)
- Agave nectar (agave syrup)
- Aspartame – brands include Equal Classic, NutraSweet, NatraTaste Blue (artificial sugar substitute)
- Barley malt (malted barley extract)
- Beet sugar (95% likely GMO)
- Blackstrap molasses (molasses)
- Brown rice syrup (rice syrup, rice malt)
- Brown sugar
- Buttered sugar (buttercream)
- Cane juice
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Carob syrup
- Caster sugar (superfine sugar)
- Coconut sugar
- Confectioner's sugar (powdered sugar, icing sugar)
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Crystalline fructose
- Date sugar
- Demerara sugar
- Diastatic malt powder
- Erythritol – brands include Zerose, ZSweet (sugar alcohol)
- Ethyl maltol
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrates
- Galactose (can be manufactured from lactose in dairy products)
- Glucose solids
- Glycerol (glycerin, glycerine) (sugar alcohol)
- Glycyrrhizin (licorice)
- Golden sugar
- Golden syrup (refiner's syrup)
- Grape sugar
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate (HSH) (sugar alcohol)
- Invert sugar (inverted sugar)
- Isomalt – brands include DiabetiSweet + acesulfame potassium (hydrogenated isomaltulose) (sugar alcohol)
- Lactitol (sugar alcohol)
- Lactose (milk sugar)
- Malt syrup
- Maltitol (hydrogenated maltose) (sugar alcohol)
- Maltose (malt sugar)
- Mannitol (sugar alcohol)
- Maple syrup
- Molasses syrup
- Monk fruit extract (Luo Han Guo, swingle fruit extract, SGFE)
- Muscovado sugar (barbados)
- Neotame (artificial sugar substitute)
- Oat syrup (avena sativa)
- Organic raw sugar (watch out for added chemicals in processing)
- Panela (raspadura)
- Panocha (penuche, brown sugar fudge candy)
- Polydextrose (sugar alcohol)
- Rice bran syrup
- Rice syrup
- Saccharin – brands include Equal Saccharin, Necta Sweet, Sugar Twin, Sweet'N Low, Sweet Twin (artificial sugar substitute)
- Sorbitol (sugar alcohol)
- Sorghum (sorghum syrup)
- Stevia (steviol glycosides)
- Sucralose – brands include Equal Sucralose, NatraTaste Gold, Splenda (artificial sugar substitute)
- Sucrose (table sugar, white sugar)
- Sugar (granulated)
- Sugar alcohol
- Syrup (sugar syrup)
- Tagatose – brands include Naturlose, Tagatesse + sucralose (can be manufactured from lactose in dairy products)
- Tapioca syrup
- Turbinado sugar (raw sugar)
- Xylitol – brands include Xylipure, Xylosweet (sugar alcohol)
- Yellow sugar