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Humans are programmed to seek out sweet. After all, carbohydrates fuel the brain, boost the mood, and give us quick energy to be at our best--but we haven't always had access to the staggering amount of refined sugars. Sugar tastes good, but too much contributes to obesity, dental cavities, and diabetes risk, and it may also also lead to inflammation in the body, a factor in the development of many chronic diseases. Intending to do the right thing, parents often feel the challenge of trying to limit treats without becoming a sugar cop.
How much is too much?
Simple sugars are added to a surprisingly large number of common foods, so they make up a large percentage of the typical diet, and they act differently in our bodies than those occurring naturally in unprocessed foods. Since children develop taste preferences very early in life, it's best to limit the sweet stuff while you can, to help stave off the sweet tooth. Try to limit kids' total sugar intake to less than 40 grams per day, or about 10 teaspoons of sugar.
Become a sugar sleuth
Clues lie in the glycemic index: The glycemic index (GI) of a food tells of its relative ability to raise blood sugar. For reference, glucose has a GI of 100; the GI of sucrose (table sugar) is 59. Another measurement, called the glycemic load (GL), takes into account how much of the sugar will actually be consumed in different foods. In general, the lower the GI and GL, the healthier the sweetener. However, there are some exceptions: for example, fructose has a relatively low GI, but some scientists believe it is one of the more harmful types of sugar.
The usual suspects: Table sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maple syrup, honey, and molasses
Hidden culprits: Look out for these sweets: evaporated cane juice, sorghum, concentrated fruit juices, corn syrup solids, corn sweeteners, turbinado sugar, maltodextrin, glucose, fructose, lactose, dextrose, galactose, and maltose. Maltodextrin, in particular, has a very high GI, but foods containing it may be marketed as "low-sugar" because it's classified as a complex carbohydrate.
Sugar in disguise: Pay close attention to foods that you might not think of as having a lot of sugar. Sugar loves to hide out in suprising places, so take time to read labels to avoid adding unnecessary sugars. Keep an eye on processed breads, ketchup, nut butters, salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, canned soups, yogurt, and granola and protein bars.
Seek sweets that are better for you
While it's best for health to stay away from too much of any sweetener, some have qualities that make them a better fit for certain people.
Stevia is a zero-calorie, zero GI natural sweetener. It's sold as herbal extracts (powders, tablets, and liquid preparations) and under the trade name, Truvia .
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that's not actually absorbed by the body. It has a slightly cooling taste, so it's best in things like chewing gum. Studies have shown that regularly chewing xylitol-sweetened gum may reduce the activity of cavity-causing bacteria and it may also reduce the recurrence of middle ear infections in children.
Date sugar is a whole food made from chopped dates that retains all the vitamins, minerals, and fiber of the fruit from which it's derived.
Palm sugar (or coconut palm sugar) has a pretty low GI (35) and a delicious butterscotch taste.
Maple syrup, while it has a slightly higher GI (54), also contains an abundance of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Raw honey is rich in natural enzymes and antioxidants and has a surprisingly low GI of 30.
Barley malt syrup, made from spouted barley, is considered one of the healthiest natural sweeteners with a GI of 42.
Blackstrap molasses is a rich source of iron and calcium, and has a GI of 55.
Dehydrated (not evaporated) cane juice is simply the dried juice from sugar cane to which nothing has been added and nothing has been removed. It's sold as Sucanat and Rapadura .
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her doctoral degree from Bastyr University, the nation's premier academic institution for science-based natural medicine. She co-founded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI, where she practiced whole family care with an emphasis on nutritional counseling, herbal medicine, detoxification, and food allergy identification and treatment. Her blog, Eat Happy, helps take the drama out of healthy eating with real food recipes and nutrition news that you can use. Dr. Beauchamp is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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