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How Sweet It Is
Sugar Creep is changing the American palate

HealthSCOUT - By Reporter Gary Legwold

TUESDAY, June 20 (HealthSCOUT) —  It is becoming crystal clear: We eat a lot of sugar without a lot of awareness that we are doing so.

Americans consume an average 20.5 teaspoons -- nearly 3 ounces -- of added sugars each day, according to 1994-'96 figures (the most recent available) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII). That's 68.5 pounds per year of added sugars, which are those sugars that do not occur naturally in foods. Added sugars include white, brown and raw sugars; various syrups; dextrose; fructose sweetener and liquid fructose; and honey molasses.

Shanty Bowman, who analyzed the CSFII data from 14,709 people, ages 2 and up, says added sugars are consumed in processed foods, especially in bakery products (breads, cakes, cookies, pies, other pastries), dairy desserts, candies, fruit drinks, punches and sports drinks. Bowman is a food scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Community Nutrition Research Group in Beltsville, Md.

People commonly eat processed foods not realizing how much sugar is in the food. For example, there has been a "popularity of low-fat or fat-free foods," says Brenda Day, a research dietitian at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. "Consumers think these are healthy foods because manufacturers take out the fat -- but they make up the calories with added sugars."

The biggest source of added sugars is nondiet soft drinks, accounting for one-third of added sugars consumed. Bowman found the CSFII group whose added-sugar intake was highest drank 16 times more nondiet soft drinks than the group whose added-sugar intake lowest.

"I knew the highest sugar group drank more pop, but I didn't realize it was that much more," says Bowman. "When I saw that figure, I went 'Wow!'"

"Pop is liquid candy," says Samantha Heller, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center in New York City. She is concerned that added sugars are altering American palates. That is, as manufacturers add more sugars to more products, consumers are becoming more expectant of a sweeter taste. "I mean, there is now an Oreo PopTart," says Heller. "How scary is that? That's dessert for breakfast."

Dick Elder of The Sugar Association in Washington, D.C., questions the accuracy of a self-reported survey such as the CSFII, which relies on a person's memory of foods eaten. But beyond the data disputes, he says the sweetening of America is less a matter of people eating additional amounts of cane and beet sugar and more a matter of new sweeteners used in a variety of ways. "There has been a technology growth in the sweetener industry," he says.

Heller says sugars are not "evil, but too much sugar -- which has many calories and few nutrients -- displaces healthy, nutrient-dense foods in the diet. We are not giving our bodies the nutrients we need to grow and fight disease." Bowman's study confirms that the group with the highest added-sugar intake had the lowest intakes of protein and micronutrients (vitamins A, C, B12, folate, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, iron).

What To Do

Consumers who want to reduce their sugar intake should eat more nutrient-rich whole grains, vegetables, fruits and sources of protein. Give yourself at least two weeks to get used to eating less sugar and even more time to calm down that sweet tooth. "It will take seven to 10 exposures to a new food or recipe before you develop a taste for it," says Heller.

Moderation is the key. "I am from India," says Bowman, "and we have a saying that if consumed in excess, even the nectar of God is a poison."