Op-Ed Columnist: A Month Without Sugar

I know that Triscuits and pita bread are our friends. They have only a few ingredients, and no sugar. Wheat Thins and most packaged sandwich breads, on the other hand, have an ingredient list that evokes high school chemistry class, including added sugars.

See if you can stay under a healthy limit.

If you give up sugar for a month, you’ll become part of a growing anti-sugar movement. Research increasingly indicates that an overabundance of simple carbohydrates, and sugar in particular, is the No. 1 problem in modern diets. An aggressive, well-financed campaign by the sugar industry masked this reality for years. Big Sugar instead placed the blame on fats — which seem, after all, as if they should cause obesity.

But fats tend to have more nutritional value than sugar, and sugar is far easier to overeat. Put it this way: Would you find it easier to eat two steaks or two pieces of cake?

Fortunately, the growing understanding of sugar’s dangers has led to a backlash, both in politics and in our diets. Taxes on sweetened drinks — and soda is probably the most efficient delivery system for sugar — have recently passed in Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, San Francisco and Boulder, Colo. Mexico and France now have one as well, and Ireland and Britain soon will.

Even before the taxes, Americans were cutting back on sugar. Since 1999, per capita consumption of added sweeteners has fallen about 14 percent, according to the Agriculture Department.

Yet it needs to drop a lot more — another 40 percent or so — to return to a healthy level. “Most public authorities think everybody would be healthier eating less sugar,” says Marion Nestle of N.Y.U. “There is tons of evidence.”

A good long-term limit for most adults is no more than 50 grams (or about 12 teaspoons) of added sugars per day, and closer to 25 is healthier. A single 16-ounce bottle of Coke has 52 grams.

You don’t have to cut out sugar for a month to eat less of it, of course. But it can be difficult to reduce your consumption in scattered little ways. You can usually find an excuse to say yes to the plate of cookies at a friend’s house or the candy jar during a meeting. Eliminating added sugar gives you a new baseline and forces you to make changes. Once you do, you’ll probably decide to keep some of your new habits.

My breakfasts, for example, have completely changed. Over the past few decades, typical breakfasts in this country have become “lower-fat versions of dessert,” as Gary Taubes, the author of a new book, “The Case Against Sugar,” puts it.

Mine used to revolve around cereal and granola, which are almost always sweetened. Now I eat a combination of eggs, nuts, fruit, plain yogurt and some well-spiced vegetables. It feels decadent, yet it’s actually healthier than a big bowl of granola.

How should you define sugar during your month? I recommend the definition used by Whole 30, a popular food regimen (which eliminates many things in addition to sugar). The sugar that occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables and dairy is allowed. “Nobody eats too much of those,” Nestle says, “not with the fiber and vitamins and minerals they have.”

But every single added sweetener is verboten. No sugar, no corn syrup, no maple syrup, no honey, no fancy-pants agave. Read every ingredient list, looking especially for words that end in “-ose.” Don’t trust the Nutrition Facts table next to the ingredient list, because “0 g” of sugar on that list really means “less than 0.5 g.” Get comfortable asking questions in restaurants. And avoid the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas, too.

Part of the goal, remember, is to relearn how a diet that isn’t dominated by sweeteners tastes. I’ve always liked fruit, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how delicious it was during the month. When I needed a midday treat, a Honeycrisp apple, a few Trader Joe’s apricots or a snack bar that fit the no-sugar bill saved me.

Finally, be careful not to violate the spirit of the month while sticking to the formal rules: Have only one small glass of juice a day, and eat very little with added fruit juices.

There were certainly times when I didn’t enjoy the experience. I missed ice cream, chocolate squares, Chinese restaurants and cocktails. But I also knew that I’d get to enjoy them all again.

The unpleasant parts of a month without sugar are temporary, and they’re tolerable. Some of the benefits continue long after the month is over. If you try it and your experience is anything like mine, I predict that your new normal will feel healthier and no less enjoyable than the old.

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Public Health: You’d Be Surprised at How Many Foods Contain Added Sugar

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Some pasta sauces have high amounts of added sugar. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

You may know there’s added sugar in your Coke or cookies. But did you know that it’s in your salad dressing, pasta sauce and bread?

The Food and Drug Administration came out Friday with its new template for nutrition labels. One big change was the addition of a line for “added sugar,” to be placed below a line for total sugar. The change is designed to distinguish between sugars that are naturally occurring in a food — like the milk sugar in a plain yogurt — and the sugars that food manufacturers include later to boost flavors — like the “evaporated cane juice” in a Chobani Kids strawberry yogurt.

A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina conducted a detailed survey of the packaged foods and drinks that are purchased in American grocery stores and found that 60 percent of them include some form of added sugar. When they looked at every individual processed food in the store, 68 percent had added sugar. Some of those products are more obvious sugary foods, but not all. The list includes many sauces, soups, fruit juices and even meat products.

You might think it’s easy to figure out whether the food manufacturer added sugar to your food, but it isn’t always so. While some foods include “sugar” in their ingredients, many use different words for products that are nutritionally similar. Most of us have heard of high-fructose corn syrup, a sugar made from processing corn. But there are also things like the “evaporated cane juice” in the yogurt, and “rice syrup” and “flo-malt,” which are less obvious and amount to the same thing.

Words That Really Just Mean ‘Added Sugar’

  • agave juice
  • agave nectar
  • agave sap
  • agave syrup
  • beet sugar
  • brown rice syrup
  • brown sugar
  • cane juice
  • cane sugar
  • cane syrup
  • clintose
  • confectioners powdered sugar
  • confectioners sugar
  • corn glucose syrup
  • corn sweet
  • corn sweetener
  • corn syrup
  • date sugar
  • dextrose
  • drimol
  • dri mol
  • dri-mol
  • drisweet
  • dri sweet
  • dri-sweet
  • dried raisin sweetener
  • edible lactose
  • flo malt
  • flo-malt
  • flomalt
  • fructose
  • fructose sweetener
  • glaze and icing sugar
  • glaze icing sugar
  • golden syrup
  • gomme
  • granular sweetener
  • granulated sugar
  • hi-fructose corn syrup
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • honey
  • honibake
  • honi bake
  • honi-bake
  • honi flake
  • honi-flake
  • invert sugar
  • inverted sugar
  • isoglucose
  • isomaltulose
  • kona ame
  • kona-ame
  • lactose
  • liquid sweetener
  • malt
  • malt sweetener
  • malt syrup
  • maltose
  • maple
  • maple sugar
  • maple syrup
  • mizu ame
  • mizu-ame
  • mizuame
  • molasses
  • nulomoline
  • powdered sugar
  • rice syrup
  • sorghum
  • sorghum syrup
  • starch sweetener
  • sucanat
  • sucrose
  • sucrovert
  • sugar beet
  • sugar invert
  • sweet n neat
  • table sugar
  • treacle
  • trehalose
  • tru sweet
  • turbinado sugar
  • versatose

Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, and one of the paper’s authors, said that the wide variety of sugars is not always meant to confound consumers. Instead, he said, the many sugar types are chosen by food scientists to give their products the best flavor and texture. Some sugars are better for baked goods, while others are better in soft drinks. Some are also cheaper than others. Sugar tariffs and import laws make it expensive to bring in too much foreign sugar. But not all of the sugar formulations count toward the laws’ quotas.

There’s also the matter of fruit juice concentrates, which are juices that have been stripped of nearly everything but sugar and evaporated. A lot of seemingly natural foods include ingredients like “apple juice concentrate.” That’s sugar. That will be a lot clearer when the labels are updated.

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Scaling Back: A New Policy Disagreement Between Clinton and Sanders: Soda Taxes

“Making sure that every family has high-quality, affordable preschool and child care is a vision that I strongly share,” Mr. Sanders said, in a written statement. “On the other hand, I do not support paying for this proposal through a regressive tax on soda that will significantly increase taxes on low-income and middle-class Americans. At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, it should be the people on top who see an increase in their taxes, not low-income and working people.” Over the weekend, Mr. Sanders continued to express opposition to the tax, at campaign events and on Meet the Press.

The proposed Philadelphia tax would be 3 cents for every ounce of sugary drink sold by distributors, making it the highest soda tax proposed anywhere in the country. That means a tax of $4.32 on a 12-pack of soda, which typically costs between $3 and $6 at the grocery store. It would come to 60 cents of tax on a 20-ounce bottle, which usually retails for about $2. It’s not yet clear whether distributors will absorb some of that tax or simply pass all of it on to consumers, but the city budget department expects big price increases in retail stores.

Mr. Sanders also says Mrs. Clinton’s support violates her pledge not to raise taxes on those earning less than $250,000.

Mr. Sanders’s argument is in line with that of many soda tax opponents. And there’s most likely some truth to it. Tobacco taxes, in many ways the model for soda taxes, have tended to fall largely on low-income people, who remain more likely to smoke.

But tobacco is highly addictive. In Mexico, where a big, national soda tax went into effect in 2014, soda drinking declined the fastest among the poor, who felt the tax’s effects in their budgets most acutely. Consumption among the poorest Mexicans fell by 17 percent by the end of the year, compared with 12 percent in the population nationwide. As Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina puts it: The rich paid the tax, and the poor reduced their soda drinking. If something like that happens in Philadelphia, the poor may suffer in the form of less choice or enjoyment, but they may not bear the brunt of funding city preschool.

Republicans appear to be nearly united in their opposition to the measure, both as a tax increase and a “nanny state” intrusion on personal choice. Several prominent Republicans cheered Mr. Sanders’s anti-tax stance, including Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and an influential anti-tax advocate. But conservative opposition to soda taxes is not true world over. In Britain, the Conservative government just proposed a hefty soda tax, which is expected to become law.

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