November 5, 2010

The Bittersweet Irony of Natural Sweeteners. ~ Nicole MacDonald

Natural Sweeteners are still Added Sugars.

When I got off of the white stuff, I felt more healthy and confident.

I loved when friends and family commented on my willpower. I enjoyed talking about how wonderful it was to beat the white sugar blues. I nurtured my sweet tooth with natural sweeteners and experimented with a variety of them, often. I posted recipes and food adventures on the blog I started, dedicated to sugar-free living.

I had a handle on my sugar intake, while I watched others cave in to sugar on a daily basis. The feeling was superior.

I literally cried when I read an article in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s January/February 2010 Newsletter titled Curbing America’s Sweet Tooth. I never considered natural sweeteners anything other than god’s gift to health freaks like me. But the article scrutinized natural sweeteners, judging them the same as refined sugars like white sugar and corn syrups.

This broke my heart…but piqued my interest. This was the first time I ever considered my precious honey and juice sugars, well, added sugars. I was wrong in assuming I didn’t have to pay attention to the quantities of natural sugars I ate on a daily basis.

“Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation. This does not include naturally occurring sugars such as those that occur in milk and fruits,” according to the USDA. Added sugars include my favorite natural sweeteners like honey, molasses and fruit juice. Curbing America’s Sweet Tooth goes on to say that added sugars include “all other sweeteners with calories.”

Pondering the subject, I felt like natural sweeteners deserved some kind of special recognition. After all, many contain important vitamins and minerals, while refined white sugar and corn syrups do not. However, the point of the article was not to quibble over which added sugars got the halo, but to inform us of the consequences of eating too many added sugars no matter their source.

Based on a recommendation by the American Heart Association (AHA), men should reduce their intake of added sugar to 150 calories per day. That’s approximately 37.5 grams, or nine teaspoons of sugar per day. The recommendation for women is no more than 100 calories per day—approximately six teaspoons, or 25 grams.

To put that into perspective, one 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola has 10 teaspoons of added sugar. That’s almost double the daily recommendation for women, and one more teaspoon than is recommended for men daily.

Sugars contribute to obesity, which contributes to heart disease and type 2 Diabetes. I’d heard it a million times, but now that natural sugars were thrown into the pot with yucky sugars I had to get off my high horse and examine my diet.

Even for a sugar-free-obsessed nut like myself, the recommended numbers seemed extreme and unattainable. Does the AHA really think our sugar-obsessed culture will take them seriously? Let’s hope so, our health is on the line.

High intake of added sugars is implicated in numerous poor health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Added sugars and solid fats in food, as well as alcoholic beverages are categorized as “discretionary calories” and should be eaten sparingly.


I was shocked when I began adding the sugars in my diet, and I don’t drink soda or eat candy.


  • One and half cups naturally sweetened cereal: 22.5 g added sugar
  • One and half cups naturally sweetened rice milk: 15 g added sugar
  • Half glass of unsweetened, organic grape juice: 19 g added sugar (juice concentrates are considered added sugars)
  • One slice of whole wheat cinnamon raisin bread, naturally sweetened: 6g added sugar
  • 1 tsp honey on toast: 7 g added sugar

Snack before lunch:

  • Half glass grape juice: 19 g added sugar
  • Two naturally sweetened molasses cookies: 10 g added sugar

Before lunch, this is a total of 98.5 grams of added sugars, or 24 teaspoons. In other words, before lunch I easily eat four times the daily recommendation for added sugar.

And I thought I had a handle on my sugar intake.

When the meaning of added sugars sank in, I realized I had to eat more whole foods to get my sugar fix: pineapple, pears, raisins, apples, carrots, etc. When I do eat more whole foods and cut down on my daily dose of added sugars, maybe then I’ll climb back up on my high horse.

Until then, I’ll continue to be at odds with my sweet tooth and the food marketers who make everything sweet so hard to live without.

Nicole MacDonald has been blogging about sugar-free issues since she gave up sugar on New Year’s day, 2008, and her efforts have been published in newspapers including The Seattle P.I., the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Oregonian. She is writing her first novel, a science fiction story for tweens, and volunteers in her spare time at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.

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