Hidden Sugars: Are They Harming Your Health?

It sneaks into your soda as fructose. Disguises itself as dextrose. Masquerades as maltose. Call it corn sweetener or high-fructose corn syrup — it’s still sugar. And new studies suggest too much can increase your blood pressure and harm your heart.

Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk. However, most of the sugar in our diets comes from added sugars. It’s been mixed into soft drinks, desserts, fruit drinks, jams and breads, among other foods.

Our bodies don’t need sweets to work properly, so these extra sugars provide calories without nutrients. Any sugars your body doesn’t use will show up on your waistline.

Sugar’s Effects: Not So Sweet 
Recent research suggests the health effects of added sugars stretch beyond obesity. Consuming too much sugar has been linked to high triglycerides, high blood pressure, fat around your organs and other risk factors for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Much of the news about sugar has focused on fructose, especially high-fructose corn syrup. Some research shows these sugars cause additional problems with blood pressure and cholesterol and leave you craving more. But most scientists say they’re no more harmful than any other sweetener.

“Sugar is sugar no matter what you call it,” says Ursula Ridens, a Sharp HealthCare registered dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services. “One common problem that I see with my patients is the affinity for sugar increasing in those who eat sugar in excess. The pleasure center of the brain, known as the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens, is triggered and overrides normal satiety signals leading you to fill up on sweets beyond your body’s carbohydrate need.”

De-Sugar Your Diet 
The bottom line? Keeping extra sugar of all kinds out of your diet can protect your waistline — and your heart. There’s no government-recommended level for sugar. The American Heart Association, however, advises keeping your intake under 100 calories or 6 teaspoons a day for women, and 150 calories or 9 teaspoons a day for men.

The average American adult or child, by contrast, gets about 360 calories from sugar each day. Follow these tips to curb your intake:

  • Buy fresh fruits or those canned with water or natural juice, rather than syrup. 

  • Choose water over sodas and sports drinks. Ridens adds, “Flavor plain water with cucumber slices, a couple of mint leaves, lemongrass, a few squeezes of citrus fruit, or even ginger.”

  • Reach for the spice jar. Ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon — along with extracts like vanilla and almond — provide sweetness without calories.

  • Read nutrition labels. Check the number of sugar grams; there are four calories in each sugar gram. Compare brands and avoid those that place honey, corn, maple syrup or words that end in “ose” at the top of the ingredient list.

  • Reduce the amount of sugar you add to your coffee, cereal or tea by half. When baking, slash sugar by one-third to one-half. You often won’t notice the difference.

Find healthy recipes to keep your sugar intake low.

For More Information
To learn more about Sharp's nutrition services or to find a Sharp-affiliated physician, search for San Diego doctors or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm.