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Even if you read food labels, you may not know where the sugar is

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

The overconsumption of sugar — in soda, in processed foods, even in items like natural granola bars — is a subject on the minds of many health professionals.

The sweetener “has an important place in American diets. But everything in moderation,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, who was in town this month to appear on a Let’s Talk About Food panel, and speak at Boston Public Market. “The main sources of sugars in American diets are soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages in all of their different ways,” says Nestle, author of “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning),” “and what the Department of Agriculture charmingly calls grain-based desserts” — doughnuts, cakes, pies, and other confections. Nestle writes that soda accounts for one-third of the nation’s added sugar consumption. The good news, she says, is that the simple act of cutting down or eliminating soda is effective. In public health parlance this is called low-hanging fruit. “You just tell people to drink less and it makes a big difference.”


Registered dietitian Julia Elliott, who works in the cardiac rehabilitation center at Emerson Hospital and offers nutrition classes at Saltbox Farm in Concord, which she co-owns with her chef-husband, Ben, says that we have a taste for sugar, which “is laced in everything that you’re eating.”

Nestle distinguishes added sugar from sugars that occur naturally in foods. “Nobody’s really worried about the sugars in fruit,” she says, “[because] they come with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.”

It’s easy to think that adding sugar to something considered healthful is different than other added sugars. For people trying to avoid highly processed foods, an all-natural honey-sweetened granola bar may be preferable to a candy bar loaded with refined sugar. But natural doesn’t always equal nutritious. Kate Sweeney, a registered dietitian and manager of the nutrition and wellness center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, defines added sugars as “something that’s put into a food to preserve it or make it taste better.” These include granulated sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, and molasses. “The body of research shows all added sugars are digested by our bodies the same way,” she says.


Even if you’re in the habit of reading food labels, you may not always know whether sugars listed are natural or added. Sandra Allonen, a clinical dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Family Van, a mobile clinic for underserved communities, advises patients to “look at the ingredients on the labels,” rather than relying solely on nutrition facts (grams of sugar, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, etc.). In yogurt, for example, sugar occurs naturally in milk products, so plain yogurt contains sugar (amounts vary); flavored yogurt can contain more than twice as much.

Sweeney says people might be surprised that “sugary yogurt and cereal” fall into the category of sweets that she believes have to be scaled back or eliminated. In order to help people successfully modify their eating habits, she says, “We focus on what they can eat,” and emphasize diets based on lean protein, vegetables, and whole grains. Another key goal is to maintain consistent patterns so people don’t become famished.

“If you’re cooking or baking from scratch, you’re a step ahead,” says Elliott. “You can dictate the salty or sweetness level.”


You can also retrain your palate to enjoy less sweet food. Flour Bakery owner Joanne Chang, author of “Baking With Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar,” uses far less granulated sugar, if any, in her book, and relies more on honey, molasses, maple syrup, and fruit. “The big thing I discovered is when you’re not focusing on sugar as the sweetener, you have to amp up on the other flavors,” Chang says. Hence recipes like pumpkin-apple spice muffins with vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves but less than a cup of molasses and maple syrup combined; peanut-butter honey cookies that call for unsalted no-sugar peanut butter, chopped raw peanuts, and just a half-cup of honey; and pecan-date shortbread sweetened only with dates.

Says Sweeney, “No food is bad or good. Sugar is one form of carbohydrate and there’s a time and place for it.” In moderation, of course.

Andrea Pyenson can be reached at