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Sugar certainly is a hot topic.

It's no secret that sugar, especially refined sugar, isn't all that great for our health. It's been linked to illnesses and weight gain. It zaps our energy, wreaks havoc with our hormones and adversely affects our mood and ability to concentrate. It's especially harmful for our children, who are still developing (not to mention it can make them bounce-off-the-wall crazy). In fact, recent studies have suggested that it's so toxic to our health that it's one of the most dangerous (and addictive) parts of the standard American diet... and we're consuming more of it now than ever before.

So, how can we balance eating real food and living in the modern world with the convenience of some pre-made foods?

We realize in today's world it's almost impossible to eliminate sugar from the average person's diet. As busy moms, wives and working women, it just isn't feasible to spend all our time in the kitchen cooking meals from scratch. The problem is MOST pre-made foods have lots of overly processed added sugars (check out How Manufacturers Hide it in Your “Healthy” Food).

To help you navigate the sugar-laden grocery store aisles and move away from overly processed sugars that so many foods are filled with, we've put together some general ways to be mindful of the types and amount of sugar you're consuming.

What kind of sugars are you eating?

Sugar falls under two categories, natural sugar or added sugar.

Added sugars

Sugars that are considered added sugars are added during the manufacturing process to food that naturally does not contain them. Have you ever looked at a label and realized how many names there are for sugar?

Some of the less familiar ingredients that indicate added sugar are items that contain dext or ose in the name of their ingredients, such as maltodextrin, maltose, dextrose, and sucrose.

You may be surprised how many items you find refined sugar or HFCS in, ranging from sweetened applesauce, condiments, bread, cereal, salad dressings, lunch meat, protein bars, pasta sauces, peanut butter, jam, jelly, sodas, sweetened milk, cookies, crackers, fruit drinks and even baked beans! The list goes on. The only surefire way to know if sugar has been added to a food item is to check the ingredients listed.

The honey and maple syrup controversy: Even though naturally occurring, honey and maple syrup can be labeled as added sugars if they are added during the manufacturing process to food that naturally does not contain them. Unfortunately, if they're added to a product there's often no way of knowing if they're 100% pure or not.

What about natural sugars?

Natural sugars: Meaning they're found naturally in foods.

Natural sugars can be in anything from natural milk sugars, to fruit, to less obvious foods, such as vegetables. While natural sugars aren't necessarily unhealthy, it's important to be aware of them and minimize your sugar intake.

How much sugar should you be eating?

Sugar itself isn't the bad guy, it's HOW MUCH and what TYPES you are eating and drinking. It's amazing how quickly the amount of sugar can add up. According to www.health.gov's dietary guidelines, it should be less than 10% of your daily intake.

Depending on a number of factors, including your level of activity, it should look something like this per day (sources linked at the bottom):

  • Women: 24 grams of added sugar (40-60 grams total natural + added)
  • Men: 36 grams of added sugar (50-75 grams total natural + added)
  • Children:  Depending on age, 12-25 grams of added sugar (25-50 grams total natural + added for young children and 35-80 grams total for older children)

Just for comparison

  • A large apple has 25 grams of natural sugar.
  • A Cliff "Crunch" Granola Bar (chocolate chip) has 21 grams of added sugar. That's almost your entire allotment of added sugar for the day!
  • So ladies, if you eat a Cliff granola bar and an apple, you've reached your suggested daily sugar intake.

So, what should you look out for when checking ingredient labels?

Basically, steer clear of anything that's been highly refined or processed. If you use artificial sweeteners – STOP! Replace them with 100% natural, raw, unbleached and unrefined sugar or honey.

  • Avoid refined and bleached sugars, such as white table sugar.
  • Avoid all artificial sweeteners, such as those small colored packets of artificial sweeteners at coffee shops and breakfast joints.
  • Avoid HFCS, corn sugar or corn syrup.
  • Avoid using syrups that are highly processed (sorry, Aunt Jemima).
  • Avoid eating items that contain dext or ose in the name of their ingredients, such as maltodextrin, maltose, dextrose, and sucrose.
  • Limit/avoid turbinado sugar and evaporated cane juice. They are refined and processed, but not as refined as white table sugar.
  • Limit/avoid foods with sugar or a sweetener listed as one of the first three ingredients.

What’s okay to eat when it comes to natural sugars and sweeteners?

As we said before, sugar itself isn't the problem. It's the types and quantities that are being consumed that really makes a difference. So, if you're going to indulge in one of these sweet ingredients, do it mindfully!

  • 100% pure, raw honey
  • 100% pure, raw maple syrup
  • 100% natural, raw, unbleached and unrefined sugars
  • 100% cold-pressed juice (such as apple or cranberry juice)
  • Unsweetened dates without added oils
  • The food itself, such as fruits and veggies, containing natural sugars

For a FULL breakdown on how to adjust ratios when using these real food sweeteners, check out Healthy Ingredient Swaps to Help You Ditch Processed Food (Sugar Roundup).

Side note: If you're buying honey or maple syrup that isn't local, check the ingredients and make sure it's 100% pure. Some grocery store “honey” and "maple syrup" contains HFCS and other added sugars. This is another sneaky way that manufacturers cut costs.

When the above options are not available, use these sparingly:

  • 100% pure miel de agave (traditional agave nectar that is boiled down from the sap of the agave plant and isn’t highly refined)
  • 100% unrefined and unbleached whole cane sugar or sucanat
  • 100% pure unrefined coconut crystals
  • 100% pure unrefined coconut palm sugar

Sometimes it’s impossible to find products that are sweetened with your preference of sugar or sweetener. In that case, look for items sweetened with simply evaporated cane juice, sugar or coconut palm sugar. You’re better off choosing these than HFCS or a bunch of highly processed sweeteners that are difficult to pronounce or hidden by unfamiliar words.

Some things to look for when checking natural sugar and sweetener labels and ingredients

  • Unbleached
  • Unrefined
  • 100% pure
  • 100% cold-pressed juice not from concentrate
  • Raw

Where to find your natural sugars and sweeteners

  • When possible, eat local raw honey, often found at local farms, farmers' markets and orchards.
  • Often, you can find quality 100% pure maple syrup at your local farmer's market.
  • When you can’t buy local, look into organic products.
  • Local Food Co-Op's, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and other natural and organic markets are great options when local foods are not available.
  • Whether local or store-bought, organic or not, always check the label and ingredients!
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Tips when eating out

  • If you are ordering breakfast foods that need syrup, ask the server if they have 100% pure maple syrup or honey. Most places serve highly processed syrups. Steer clear of these!
  • Ask for honey to sweeten your coffee rather than using highly processed sugars or artificial sweeteners.

Try some of our favorite sweet treats:

Have you taken a look at the amount of sugar and all the different ways it's snuck into foods on the grocery store shelves? What food item were you most surprised to find an abundance of sugar in? Post a comment below.