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Who Can Say No to This?

Sugar is nearly impossible to resist—and you’re probably eating more of it than you think.

It's an hour before dinner, and you shouldn't spoil your appetite, but you have a craving for something sweet. You rummage through the fridge and kitchen cabinets, until—bingo!—you come upon a package of chocolate cookies. Your mouth is already watering.

“I’ll have just one,” you think.
“And another ...”
“And maybe a couple more ...”

In no time, you’ve devoured half the package.

You may blame your sweet tooth. Or your lack of willpower. But that’s only part of the story.

Neuroscientist Eric Stice took pictures of teenagers’ brains while they consumed soda and other sugary treats. He found that sugar-sweetened foods lit up the “reward center” of their brains, giving them a happy, pleasurable feeling that made it difficult to stop eating. “The more sugar you eat, the more you want it,” Stice says. 

But here’s the tricky thing: Steering clear of eating too much sugar isn’t as simple as resisting those extra Oreos. That’s because food manufacturers have added sugars to
a whopping 74 percent of the packaged food items in your supermarket. Often, the sweet stuff is in foods you don’t expect, like crackers, deli meats, salad dressing, “healthy” flavored yogurts, and even whole wheat bread.

Food manufacturers do it to make foods taste better. They do it to keep you coming back for more. And they do it even though sugar may be messing with your health. 

THE SUGAR CREEP

Today, Americans, on average, each eat 57 pounds of sugar a year—but it wasn’t always that way. It’s not that people in, say, the 1800s didn’t have a taste for sweets—humans have craved ripe, sugar-rich fruits since the caveman days—but the way they ate was far, far different. Early Americans had to make meals out of meats from animals they hunted and fresh fruits and veggies grown nearby. Dessert was usually dried fruits or homemade puddings sweetened with maple syrup or molasses.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that most Americans began to buy processed and packaged foods, like ready-to-eat cereal. And it was even later—in the 1940s—that food scientists began to understand how to make those foods even more delicious: by pumping them full of extra sugar.

But food manufacturers weren’t just tucking the sweet stuff into those sneaky sources like cereal and bread. They also began mass-producing sugary sodas and snacks, making them easier to buy and consume.

So what’s the big deal? Nutritionists call the sweeteners put in during the food production process added sugars, and they warn that these sugars affect our bodies differently than the natural sugars found in the fruits enjoyed by our ancient ancestors. When you eat an orange, for example, you’re not only getting a rush of sweetness; you’re also getting fiber and complex carbohydrates. It takes your body time to break down these nutrients, which means that the sugar gets released into your blood slowly. This process also keeps you fuller longer. 

When you chug an orange soda, on the other hand, you send a concentrated load of sugar straight to your liver. An overload of sugar can, over time, lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Vocabulary words from the graphic:

toxins

converts

THE BIG COVER-UP

How long have food manufacturers known about the dangers of sugar? That’s a tricky question—with a troubling answer. The first studies linking sugar to health problems were completed in the 1960s, but sugar companies didn’t want that information to go public. They knew they would lose money if people knew how unhealthy sugar could be.

Recently, researchers from the University of San Francisco discovered old papers that showed the extreme steps these companies took to protect their profits. The documents showed that the Sugar Research Foundation, a group created to promote the sugar industry, hired scientists to do a different study. That study focused on the dangers of fat rather than sugar. It helped shape U.S. dietary recommendations for decades, and it prompted many Americans to focus on cutting back on fat instead of sweets.

“They put a tremendous amount of energy into trying to shape the scientific discussion,” says Stanton Glantz, who co-authored a report on the old documents, “and they were able to move the focus away from sugar as a player in heart disease for 40 years.” 

SNEAKY TACTICS

Questionable science is just one of the tactics some food companies have up their sleeves. They also try to disguise sugar by sneaking it into foods under different names, says Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. Lustig has counted 56 names for the hidden sweet stuff. Maybe you’ve heard of sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup. But how about agave nectar, rice syrup, and barley malt? They may sound healthier, but those are sugars too.

You can spot sugar on a product’s ingredient list. The more of something that’s in a food, the higher it’s supposed to be on that list. But food companies do something else to fool you. To make it appear that a product doesn’t have a lot of sugar, they often use smaller amounts of three or four different types of sugar.

“Different types of sugar may be number 5, 6, 7, and 8 on the ingredient list,” Lustig says, “but when you add them up, it’s the number 1 ingredient.” Sneaky! 

DON'T FREAK OUT

The good news? Sugar in moderate amounts is fine. In fact, we need sugar. It’s an important energy source that should make up about 10 percent of our diet. But now that you’re on to the industry’s tricks, you can take steps to know what you’re really eating and lower your intake. Maybe you cut out soda, or ask your mom to buy the peanut butter with less sugar. That will leave more room for a delicious, healthy meal—and a couple of Oreos too! 

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