Emily Larson is a volunteer facilitator with Cooking Matters, a program of the Colorado non-profit group, Share Our Strengths (part of the No Kid Hungry Network).
Imagine I gave you a bag of sugar, a measuring teaspoon, and a mission: measure out the recommended daily intake of sugar vs the sugar you actually ate today. Most of us would fail. First, the recommended daily intake is remarkably low: 3-4 tsp of added sugar for children, 6 tsp for adult women, and 9 tsp for adult men. Second, food and drink companies are really good at hiding added sugar. In fact, even if you read nutrition labels regularly, you’ll find that most don’t tell you how much sugar is natural and how much is unnecessarily added.
So how do we get smarter about sugar? It’s no secret that soda has a lot of sugar. And it makes sense; it’s sweet and tastes good. It’s also known to rot your teeth and increased soda consumption is linked to obesity and diabetes. However, you might be surprised at how much sugar is hidden in foods that aren’t necessarily associated with sugar, like: crackers, ketchup, and even “healthy” breakfast cereal. The Cooking Matters program, supported by the nonprofit Share Our Strength is empowering families with skills to provide their kids with healthy meals, and along the way sharing the story of hidden sugar. In their Sugar Overload demonstration, they take a fun and eye-opening approach to visualizing how much hidden sugar is really out there. This brings us back to that big old bag of sugar.
The program participants, mostly parents with kids under 6, are each given a beverage container. In most cases it is something that the parent is familiar with and agrees that "I drink one of these each morning," or "That's my daughter's favorite with breakfast."
Enter the bag of sugar. One by one, each participant is asked to find the sugar line on the nutrition label, where it tells you the grams of sugar in one serving. The number from that line is then multiplied by the number of servings. You’d think one bottle would be one serving, but surprise! There is usually more than one serving per bottle --tricky! Ok, so now you have the total grams of sugar. But who the heck knows what a gram of sugar is? Last step, divide the total grams of sugar by 4 to get something we can all understand: the number of teaspoons of sugar.
The class participants then measure the number of teaspoons of sugar calculated from their selected drink into a plastic cup. The results are shocking. See from the pictures below, ‘nuff said.
Want to know more? Here are just some of the beverages the parents selected. These are pretty common. Do you drink any of these regularly, or give them to your child? If so, grab some sugar and a teaspoon and see for yourself the crazy amount of hidden sugar in there!
- A small strawberry milk has 8 tsp of sugar.
- A small sports drink (Gatorade) has almost 9 tsp.
- One soda (Mountain Dew) has over 11 tsp.
- An (Monster) energy drink has 22 tsp - that's almost half a cup of added sugar.
- A Sunny D, 8 oz bottle has about 5 tsp.
Sunny D is an interesting one. It is an orange-flavored beverage commonly provided to kids and marketed as a great source of Vitamin C. Not so fast though, it has the same amount of sugar as soda. Not only that, but the majority of that content doesn't even come from real sugar - it comes from high fructose corn syrup. This is synthetic sugar made from corn. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Except that it is known to convert to fat more readily than natural sugars, and it may contribute to higher risk of obesity and diabetes.
You might be saying, so what? I thought I was supposed to eat lean meat and avoid saturated fat. What’s the big deal about sugar? You’d be right, this is newer health news it turns out. Several recent studies have now concluded that increased sugar consumption actually does contribute to adverse health effects, including high blood pressure and obesity. The nail in the coffin for sugar though is really recent. A huge scandal was uncovered when it was discovered that the sugar industry has known for decades that too much sugar is really bad for your health. According to a recent report on National Public Radio, “In the 1960s, the sugar industry funded research that downplayed the risks of sugar and highlighted the hazards of fat, according to a newly published article in JAMA Internal Medicine.” They have effectively hidden sugar in our foods just as well as they hid the truth about their product. Sugar may be more important to avoid than fat. Whoa!
So what's a person, or a parent for that matter, to do? We all want the best for our kids, and know that we all need to get enough calcium and vitamin C. We’ve been told by marketing companies that an easy way to do that is through these highly processed drinks, but all this information makes the decision complicated.
Here’s what the experts recommend:
1. Nix the chocolate and strawberry milk. One serving has more sugar than your kid should have in a whole day. Be a good role model: drink and provide your children with the real stuff. Unflavored regular milk!
2. Don’t drink your fruits. Get the benefit of fiber, vitamin C and natural sugar from eating fruit. If you do give kiddos juice, dilute it with water and keep it to 1/2 a cup a day (that's not much!).
3. Speaking of water, many of us reach for flavored drinks because we are actually thirsty. Go for water first, and drink it all day long. Make sure your kids have a water bottle with them at school so they can too.
4. You can always save money and kick the extra sugar by making your own flavored drinks. Add fruit slices, cucumber, or mint leaves to make pretty fancy and flavorful water at home.
5. Can’t live without soda? Here’s a tip that will save you money too: dilute sodas with plain soda water (seltzer). This way you still get the taste you crave with much less sugar.
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