Sugar has become a mainstay in our modern diets, sweetening our drinks and desserts and also lurking in unexpected places. Several recent documentaries have highlighted the negative impact of sugar on our overall health, and a recent global campaign, Action on Sugar, has labelled sugar “the new tobacco.” In 2015, the WHO (World Health Organization) issued new guidelines recommending adults and children lower their daily intake of sugar to less than 10% of their total energy intake, with a further reduction to below 5% — equal to roughly 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons — for additional health benefits.

Do you know how much sugar you are consuming? Here are some alarming sugar consumption stats provided from the documentary Hungry for Change:

  • The average North American consumes at least 64 pounds of sugar per year, and the average teenage boy at least 109 pounds.
  • Per capita consumption of added sugars has risen by 28 percent since 1983.
  • North Americans consume 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day, teens 34 teaspoons.

Chances are you’re eating more sugar than you realize, and definitely more than you should. One of the biggest challenges is that sugar comes in many forms, many of which are “hidden” in food labels. If you’re concerned and looking to limit the amount of sugar you eat, you will need to learn the other names for sugar on food labels. The following will help you become sugar savvy so you can manage your sugar intake and avoid the health pitfalls of overconsumption.

What’s so bad about sugar?

Sugar is found in most processed foods. A simple carbohydrate, sugar enhances flavour and helps boost the power of preservatives. But that’s not all it does.

Excessive sugar intake contributes to inflammation, elevating insulin levels, depressing the immune system, and generally increasing the workload of several organs in the body, especially the pancreas, liver and adrenal glands. It is also linked to:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Excessive weight gain
  • Yeast infections
  • Anxiety and mood changes/disorders
  • Hyperactivity in kids

If that weren’t enough, studies have found that people who consume diets high in added sugars typically also consume lower levels of fibre, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients. In the absence of these important nutrients, the risk of osteoporosis, certain cancers, high blood pressure and other health problems increases.

The bottom line: sugar provides empty calories with no nutritional benefit and does significant damage to our overall health.

What to look for on food labels

It’s important to recognize which ingredients are actually just another name for sugar. Often, companies will divide their total added sugar content between several different ingredient names, placed at different points in the ingredient list. So the first step is to recognize these ingredient names.

Here is a list of some of the different types of sugars you may find listed on food boxes:

  • Sugars ending in -ose: for example, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, galactose, lactose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose solids, polydextrose
  • Corn syrup (and corn syrup solids)
  • Dextrin, maltodextrin, dextran
  • Barley malt
  • Caramel
  • Buttered syrup, carob syrup, sorghum syrup, refiner’s syrup, golden syrup, malt syrup
  • Brown sugar, date sugar, yellow sugar, beet sugar, date sugar, turbinado, demerara
  • Diastase, diastatic malt
  • Sugar alcohols — sorbitol, mannitol, glycerol, lactitol, xylitol
  • Fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, dehydrated fruit juice, fruit juice crystals

Artificial sweeteners

Beware as well “diet” and “low fat” processed foods containing artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to increased hunger, increased insulin sensitivity and may pose other health risks. These include:

  • Aspartame — reported adverse effects; suspected neurotoxin and carcinogen
  • Saccharin
  • Sucralose

Healthier sugar substitutes and strategies

The following natural sweeteners are a definite improvement over refined sugar or sugar substitutes, though they too should be used in moderation:

  • Stevia — herbal sweetener and dietary supplement 300 times sweeter than stevia, with no calories and no glycemic impact
  • Coconut palm sugar —nutritious and with a low score on the glycemic index
  • Raw, unprocessed honey — antibiotic, antibacterial and antimicrobial properties; packs a nutrient punch with antioxidants, minerals, vitamin, amino acids, enzymes and phytonutrients
  • Blackstrap molasses – a good source of iron and calcium; good in baking and sweeter than sugar
  • Artichoke syrup — rich in inulin that supports healthy gut flora and calcium absorption; very low glycemic index
  • Lucuma Powder — an excellent source of fibre, vitamins, and minerals; high beta-carotene content, rich in B1, B2 and iron

Also a better option than refined sugar, though not as beneficial as the above, are barley malt, brown rice syrup or rice syrup and sucanat (evaporated sugar cane juice). And xylitol, although a sugar alcohol, does not have a negative impact on blood sugar, and has been shown to be beneficial in fighting tooth decay.

For baking, you can also opt to use (sulphate-free) dried fruit such as apricots, dates, figs and raisins. Simply rehydrate by soaking in boiling water, then chop or puree and add to dessert and other recipes.

And finally, to reduce sugar cravings, consume more whole grains (preferably wheat/gluten free), squash, sweet potatoes and apples.

Remember: all calories are not created equal, despite what some soft drink manufacturers would have us believe. Processed sugar is harmful to the body. Checking labels for sugar ingredients, opting for healthier alternatives, and reducing overall consumption of even the healthiest sugars, are important strategies for managing your weight and overall health, and reducing your risk of chronic disease.