Halloween is around the corner and not far behind it, the holidays — all tempting our weight loss resolve with a bounty of sweet treats. Sugars lurk everywhere, from the obvious sources (candy, sodas, cakes, and cookies) to the hidden ones (ketchup).
Sugar, along with the inexpensive and widely used sweetener high-fructose corn syrup, has become a scapegoat for the obesity epidemic. Many critics note that rising obesity rates parallel the increased use of high-fructose corn syrup.
But are sweeteners really all that bad?
Why We Love Sweets
The truth is that you can have your cake and eat it, too — as long as you do so in moderation. Of course, that sounds easy enough until you’re faced with sweets calling your name!
Getting a handle on sweets cravings requires a little understanding of where sweeteners lurk, as well as the science and nature of sugars.
Studies on infants confirm that it is human nature to prefer sweets over foods like vegetables, which are more of an acquired taste.
We love sweets because they not only taste good, but make us feel good. Consuming simple carbohydrates (like sweets) boosts the brain chemical serotonin, which can help improve mood. Stress reduces serotonin levels, which may help explain why some people reach for sweets when they’re feeling stressed.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
The corn syrup found on grocer’s shelves is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup, used exclusively by industry to sweeten sodas, cookies, cakes, and even foods such as dinner rolls. It’s made by treating cornstarch with enzymes, resulting in a syrup that is half glucose (similar to corn syrup found in the grocery store) and half fructose (table sugar).
Back in the 1970s, manufacturers realized that using a corn-based sweetener instead of table sugar would save them money. Since then, high-fructose corn syrup has become their sweetener of choice, especially in sweetened beverages.
There are some clear advantages to using high-fructose corn syrup to sweeten foods and drinks. It:
- Easily blends into beverages.
- Has a more concentrated sweetness than table sugar.
- Retards freezer burn.
- Helps baked goods turn golden brown and stay soft.
But there are also potential problems. Some researchers fear that the body is confused by high-fructose corn syrup, treats it more like fat than sugar, and causes us to eat more and store more fat. A study in the July 2005 issue of Obesity Research suggested that fructose affects our metabolic rate, which in turn increases fat storage.
While there’s no denying that consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has mirrored the increase in obesity in the United States, weight gain is not that simple. Gaining weight is highly individualized, involves genetics and inactivity, and it’s not likely to be a result of a single food ingredient. In fact, obesity rates are rising across the globe, even in places where high-fructose corn syrup is used very little or not at all.
If we wanted to blame a single ingredient, fat might be a more likely culprit. That’s because ounce for ounce, it has more than twice the calories of sugar. Other factors in obesity no doubt include super-sized meals and the consumption of fewer fruits and vegetables.
The Problem With Sweeteners
The main problem with sugar and other sweeteners is that they provide little more than calories and can displace other foods that contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that fight disease.
The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugars to less than 10% of total calorie intake. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines put sugars into the “discretionary calorie" group — those relatively few calories you have left over after you’ve eaten all the recommended foods.
The Sugar Association wants the Food and Drug Administration to require more stringent labeling of sugars and artificial sweeteners, similar to the required labeling for trans fats that takes effect in January 2006. The industry group believes that if consumers become more aware of the type of sweeteners used in their foods, they may choose to enjoy more simple table sugar at just 15 calories per teaspoon.
Recent data show that Americans are steering away from table sugar. USDA figures show that consumption of sucrose has gone down by 40% over the past 30 years, from 95.7 pounds per person in 1974 to 61.9 pounds in 2005. At the same time, use of artificial sweeteners as well as high-fructose corn syrup has been on the rise.
Simple Ways to Cut Sugar Calories
The bottom line is that if you want to control calories, you should limit added sugars of all kinds, including high-fructose corn syrup. Here are five simple ways to cut back on sugar calories:
- Drink fewer sweetened soft drinks.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally sweet fruits, fresh or canned in fruit juice.
- Buy only 100% fruit juice that is not sweetened.
- Instead of sweetened beverages, enjoy sparkling water with lime and/or a splash of fruit juice.
- Choose unsweetened, whole-grain cereals and cereal bars.