Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sweet Deceptions

I decided to improve my health this year (that’s New Year’s resolution #1 for many of us) by reducing my intake of refined sugar.  I eliminated all added sugars and starchy carbohydrates for 3 days.  During that time, I subsisted on lean protein and non-starchy vegetables. After the first three days, I started adding back foods while trying to avoid foods with added sugar. 

 Some nutrition researchers believe that sugar affects the brain much like an addictive drug, and that those who are sensitive will not lose their cravings unless they eliminate sugar completely for several weeks. I think I fall into this category; I seem to be engaged in a constant battle with my inner Cookie Monster.  When I started reading food labels very carefully, I found that many foods, even “healthy” meat substitutes like Garden Burgers, have added sugar.  (Yes, that woman squinting at a bag of “soy crumbles” in the frozen food aisle was me. Sorry I took so long.) 

I learned to drink my coffee black.  I quit sweetener in coffee a few months ago, but giving up that splash of milk was brutal. That only lasted for the requisite three days. After the first 3 days, I got to add a serving of dairy, an apple, more vegetables (oh joy!), and a glass of red wine.  I was totally ready for the wine. As we all know, extremely restrictive diets don’t work as a long term weight loss strategy for most people because they are dull and difficult. (I mean the diets, not the dieters.) Still, this “detox” made me much more aware of the role that sugar plays in our diets, even for those who don’t load up on desserts.  I also found that once I got past my craving for sweets, I noticed the more subtle natural sweetness in many foods.

According to food writer Michael Pollan--whose book The Omnivore’s Dilemma traces the evolution of our food sources from farms to industrialized food production systems--since 1985 Americans’ consumption of added sugars, both refined and unrefined, has increased from 128 pounds to 158 pounds per year.  (Think of eating your weight in sugar in a year – sort of like a giant marshmallow Peep!) Besides white sugar, honey, and maple syrup, that includes corn sweetener, and high fructose corn syrup.  Consumption of high fructose corn syrup has increased from 45 pounds to 66 pounds per person.  

There has been a parallel increase in obesity in the U.S. According to a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the percentage of U.S. adults categorized as “obese” in a 1988-1994  study  was 22.9% compared with 30.5% in 1999-2000 .The prevalence of those classified as merely “overweight” also increased during this period from 55.9% to 64.5% Extreme obesity (BMI 40) also increased significantly in the population, from 2.9% to 4.7% .

4 grams of sugar per serving

While fruits, vegetables, and dairy foods all contain natural sugars, sugar and other sweeteners have also become a common added ingredient in most processed or prepared foods. Take, for example, commercially-prepared pasta sauce or marinara. Now, I know that in a perfect world, I’d have prepared and preserved batches of homemade spaghetti sauce during last summer’s tomato harvest.  Sadly, odd weather and a trip to Colorado created a major crop failure in our garden.  One tomato and no sweet peppers. So instead of rows of shiny red jars of all natural marinara in my pantry, I have nothing.  I didn’t mind much, because I think that there are lots of tasty, good quality pasta sauces available at my local grocery store, and the idea of home canning vegetables raises my fears of the kind of botulism that doesn’t take away wrinkles. 
When I decided to make tofu parmesan, I wanted to find a marinara without added sugar.  Hunt’s used to make a canned sauce with no added sugar, but it’s apparently been discontinued.  I read the labels on at least 10 different brands or varieties of sauce, and all had added sugar. 

I finally found a couple of “gourmet” style sauces without added sugar.  This one cost about $3.50.  It had a nice natural flavor, although it was a little bland.  I decided to pass on the Mario Batalli sauce that sold for more than $9 a jar.  My favorite, though, is Trader Joe’s Organic at under $2.50.  It has a nice spicy flavor and no added sugar. 

It strikes me as odd that it costs more to leave extra sugar out of foods than to put it in.  Sugar is now substituted in many foods to reduce fat and used to improve flavor.  That makes me wonder why flavors need improving, if quality ingredients are used. I realize that many traditional spaghetti sauce recipes call for a pinch of sugar, but a “pinch” does not equal up to 12 grams per serving. This means that ½ cup of sauce contains nearly 3 teaspoons of sugar, which is about half of the daily consumption of sugar recommended for women by the American Heart Association. 

While a small amount of the sugar is naturally occurring from the tomatoes, that amount is only about 2-3 grams. I guess this is a reminder of how important it is to read food labels if you are concerned about the ingredients in the foods you eat.

3 grams of sugar per serving
As I was writing this post, a Center for Disease Control study reported that adults who get at least 25 percent of their calories from added sugar were three times more likely to die of heart disease than those who only consume 10 percent of their calories in added sugar. This risk is for people at a normal weight and does not include the health risks connected to obesity which have been well-documented in the media.  It is obvious that eating excessive amounts of sugar is bad for us, but what most people don’t realize is that our modern American diet of fast and convenience foods, those prepared and sold  by large corporations, contain unhealthy amounts of sweeteners that we all could do without.