Cutting back on added sugars

Nutrition professionals’ tips for reducing added sugars.

March is National Nutrition Month®, and every year I like to ask colleagues and interns to contribute their ideas about a current hot topic.  This year’s topic is “Cutting Back on Added Sugars“.  First, let’s define “added sugars”, because thanks to current labeling regulations, there’s a lot of confusion about that.  Added sugars are sweeteners added to foods deliberately, to increase sweet taste or as part of a recipe, such as for cake or cookies or soft drinks.  Sugars might be added by the manufacturer, or they might be added at home by the consumer who bakes cookies or puts sugar on fruit salad or honey on oatmeal.

Many foods — from fruit to juices to milk to many vegetables — have natural sugars.  According to current labeling regulations, a food label just lists “sugars”, whatever the source.  Foods like plain milk or plain canned tomatoes or unsweetened frozen peaches contain natural sugars, which are listed on the label, same as the added sugars in sweetened yogurt, candy bars, breakfast cereals and ice cream.  Many consumers conclude there’s no difference between these foods — they all contain dreaded sugar.  But of course there’s a vast difference in many cases.  In nutrition terms, a can of soda pop is nothing like a slice of fresh watermelon.  The FDA has proposed changing food labels to include an entry specifically for “added sugars” to fix this misperception.  For example, the label on frozen peaches or milk would include an entry for “sugar” but the “added sugar” value will be zero.

So what are some of my colleagues’ ideas for cutting back on added sugars?

Intern Caitlin Jacobsen:

  • When baking, I like to replace some of the liquid with applesauce and cut the sugar in 1/2. If the recipe still needs flavor, I will use spices like cinnamon and nutmeg!
  • Rather than buy oatmeal packets (which typically have lots of added sugar), you can make your own! Instead of sugar, use fruit, dried fruit, peanut butter, and spices to add flavor to the oats.
  • When you get a craving for sugary beverages (like soda or juice), try infused water! Just add fruits and herbs to plain water and it will add natural flavor. My favorite is strawberry mint water.
  • Watch for added sugar in cereal! Choose a cereal with low sugar content and flavor with fruit & nuts instead.

Intern Keighly Colangelo:

  • I like flavoring water with cucumber, lemon, lime, and/or orange slices, or berries instead of drinking juice or soda. I personally love cranberry juice, so I always dilute it with water to not consume as much sugar.
  • I also worked as a barista for almost 3 years in two different coffee shops. Unfortunately, most flavored coffee, tea, and smoothie drinks come with a lot of added sugars that people are not aware about. Most flavorings are syrups made from high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, or other forms of sugar. Beware the hidden sugars! Instead, ask your barista if they offer sugar-free syrups or if they can adjust the sweetness level so you can still enjoy the flavor but not consume an excess amount of sugar in one drink. The other option is to choose drink options that do not have added flavorings such as regular black coffee, lattes, cappuccinos, americanos, hot tea, and numerous other options. If you’re not sure, ask your barista!

Intern Craig Cobb:

  • If you’re an Orange Juice fanatic but want to reduce your intake of added sugar, try filling ½ of your glass with the OJ and the other ½ with water. This simple trick can cut your sugar intake by 50%! (Can also be used with Gatorade and other juices)

Registered Dietitian Martha Henze:

  • Bake with fruits (banana, pumpkin breads, cookies, muffins) – decrease sugar because fruit is naturally sweet
  • Make a peanut butter and “fruit” sandwich – instead of jelly, cut slices or strawberries, banana or even apples and place on top of peanut butter for a sweet crunch!
  • After I make old-fashioned oats on the stove with milk.  I put it in a bowl with in which I have mashed a banana.  Add  5-10 nuts and 5-10 pieces of dried raisins and you have a hearty delicious naturally sweetened breakfast

Brenda Braslow, MS, RDN, CDE

  • Nurture your taste for tangy, spicy, citrusy to get away from just looking for sweetness in food and drinks.  It is easy to run with the desire for sweet foods without even realizing it.  Explore outside the sweet zone.
  • There are naturally flavored teas that have a hint of sweetness and flavor from the natural herbs and spices without added sugar.
  • I like to use plain yogurt and add a dab of cottage cheese for texture, nuts and raw oatmeal for crunch, fruit for natural sweetness and a sprinkle of raw sugar on top.  The larger sugar granules hit the taste buds just right.  1/2 tsp goes a long way! Try not to pour it directly out of the sugar box if you don’t trust that you can keep it to a reasonable amount that fits your calorie needs.
  • Mindfully savor a small amount of a sweet treat and really enjoy it.  Have you ever gobbled down a candy bar without even really tasting it?  Most of us can answer yes to that.

Finally, from my Walk Talk Nutrition co-host Kathy Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE

  1. I like to pinpoint certain packaged foods people might be eating and work on choices with lower sugar, especially for items with health halos such as:
    • Flavored yogurts
    • Breakfast cereals
    • Energy/granola bars
  2. Lower added sugar intake by reducing portion or serving size. I will do this especially for sweetened hot or cold drinks, table sugar, syrups, dried sweetened tropical fruit, ice cream, etc.  For a client “addicted” to a high calorie espresso drink, the first step might be going from a grande to a tall size, then down to a short size. Going down in portion size is especially helpful if they don’t consume sugar-free products.

All great tips for a very good purpose.  A diet that’s full of added sugars is a diet that overemphasizes low-nutrition processed foods, not a great choice.  Plus all that sugar just dulls your taste buds to the more subtle flavors of real natural flavors.  As you cut back on sugary foods, your taste preferences will adjust.  After awhile, you’ll find that a food that you used to like now tastes excessively sweet.  Give some of these tips a try, and you’ll be on the path to a better diet.

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