Research suggests we're eating far more than our recommended daily limit of added sugar. And it's not just your dental bills you have to worry about – too much sugar can lead to weight gain, metabolic disorder (a precursor to diabetes and heart disease), and possibly even some cancers.
Use these tips to scale back painlessly…
Sweet swaps you won't even notice
"A few substitutions can reduce our sugar intake without short-changing your sweet tooth," says Leslie Bonci, a dietician and sports nutrition specialist.
- Instead of 2 T bottled honey-mustard salad dressing, try 1 T fat-free mayo with 1/2 T mustard and 1/2 t each honey and lemon juice: SAVE 2g sugar
- Instead of 1/2 cup tinned peas, try 1/2 cup frozen peas: SAVE 4g sugar
- Instead of 1 cup of ready-made pasta sauce from a jar, try 1 cup crushed tomatoes with 1 t each basil and oregano: SAVE 10g sugar
- Instead of 1 small bag of Skittles, try 1 small bag of peanut M&Ms: SAVE 22g sugar
You know there's plenty of sugar in fizzy drinks, sweets and cake, but it also lurks in plenty of products you wouldn't expect.
Learn the lingo: "Most people monitor their intake of table sugar, or sucrose," says nutritionist Mary Ellen Bingham. But sugar has a variety of aliases. In addition to the usual, watch out for varieties such as maltose, dextrose (glucose), fructose, fruit-juice concentrate and corn sweetener/syrup.
The skinny on fat-free: Some low-fat or fat-free foods contain higher amounts of processed sugar to mask missing flavour, warns Bingham.
Lay off the sauce: "Barbecue, spaghetti and hot sauces may get more than half their kJ from added sugar," says dietician and author Elisa Zied. The same goes for some shop-bought condiments such as tomato sauce, relish and salad dressings.
Know that "all-natural" doesn't mean "sugar-free": It sounds healthy, but don't be mislead. Many products are packed with added sugars in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
Your top sugar questions answered
Can you become addicted to sugar?
It seems so. Research suggests sugar may trigger the release of neurotransmitters that activate the brain's pleasure pathways. In fact, a study from France's University of Bordeaux found that a high-sugar diet may cause cravings in animals that rival those for drugs such as cocaine.
I've heard a lot about Agave Nectar. What exactly is it?
This liquid sweetener is made from the blue agave plant, a desert shrub. "Agave is only slightly lower in kJ than sugar, but it falls lower on the glycaemic index, which means it's absorbed more slowly by the body and won't cause blood sugar spikes," says Zied. Because it's sweeter, you can use less.
What's the deal with high-fructose corn syrup? Is it bad for you?
"High-fructose corn syrup has a higher ratio of fructose to glucose than other sweeteners," says research scientist Alexandra Shapiro. Her studies have shown that eating too much fructose can impair the function of leptin, a hormone that controls appetite. The bottom line? Limit your intake of high-fructose corn syrup as you would any added sugar.
(This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Shape magazine, September 2009. For more great stories from Shape, go to www.shapemag.co.za.)