You probably already know that Americans eat too much sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume less than 24 grams of added sugar per day and men less than 36 grams, but the average American overshoots those targets by a mile, consuming about 88 grams (equivalent to 22 teaspoons) per day. Diets high in added sugar have been strongly linked with obesity, cardiovascular disease and other negative health outcomes.
So you already know that a high-sugar diet is not good for you and you’re looking to cut back. But identifying added sugar in your food and beverages isn’t always easy. That’s because sugar has more nicknames than Shaquille O’Neal, which makes it easy to disguise on a list of ingredients. In fact, there are roughly 60 different names for added sugar, ranging from dextran to sorbitol to malt. Here are five common added sugar aliases you should watch out for.
If you were oblivious to the nature of corn syrup and read it on a ingredients list, it might actually sound halfway healthy. Corn is technically a vegetable and it’s high in protein, potassium and fiber. So a syrup made from corn has to be somewhat healthy, right? Not quite.
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Corn syrup is produced by extracting the starch from number 2 yellow dent corn, mixing it with water, adding various natural enzymes and applying heat. This process is known as hydrolysis. Corn syrup is composed of glucose, the most basic sugar molecule.
Light corn syrup is seasoned with vanilla and salt, while dark corn syrup is a blend of corn syrup, molasses, salt, caramel color and flavor and sodium benzoate. Corn syrup has almost no nutritional value. A single tablespoon of light or dark corn syrup contains roughly 17 grams of sugar.
Beware, also, of high-fructose corn syrup. It has gotten a lot of attention in the last decade, because it is more commonly used in popular processed foods like sodas, cookies and chips. What differentiates high-fructose corn syrup from normal corn syrup is that it goes through a process that converts much of the glucose in corn syrup into fructose. Fructose was long believed to be mostly safe, since it appears in many natural foods. But doctors are now concluding that consuming too much fructose can overwhelm the liver and lead to blood clots and heart attacks. However, food manufacturers love high-fructose corn syrup because it’s cheap, it has a long shelf life and it mixes well in most foods and beverages.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is another sweetener that doesn’t look too bad when you read it on the ingredients label. Brown rice is an awesome food, high in valuable nutrients like fiber, protein, magnesium and vitamin B-6. It’s also a good source of complex carbohydrates, the type of carbs that give you long-lasting energy.
However, brown rice syrup is a different story.
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Brown rice syrup is derived by adding enzymes to cooked rice starch and heating it until the desired consistency is achieved. Like corn syrup, brown rice syrup consists mainly of glucose. In terms of nutrition, brown rice syrup and brown rice don’t have much in common. Processing eliminates almost all of the natural nutrients in brown rice, and you’re left with a syrup that contains roughly 13 grams of sugar per tablespoon and not much else. There’s also a concern about high arsenic levels in brown rice syrup. A 2012 study out of Dartmouth College found that many products made with organic brown rice syrup (such as some cereals and energy bars) contained dangerously high amounts of arsenic.
Sorghum might sound like an artificial sweetener, but it’s actually a tall cereal grain, mainly grown in the southeastern United States. Sorghum syrup is made by extracting the natural juice from sorghum cane and cooking it in an open pan to cleanse it of impurities and allow for evaporation. What’s left is an amber-colored syrup that retains all of its natural sugars.
Sorghum syrup is said to be similar to molasses, but it’s a bit thinner in consistency and slightly more bitter.
Since sorghum syrup is natural and subjected to little processing, it has shown some health benefits that normal sugar might not possess. Sorghum possesses a high concentration of antioxidants and is rich in nutrients like magnesium, manganese, potassium and vitamin B-6. Studies have found that sorghum consumption might inhibit tumor growth, help manage cholesterol and even aid in diabetes prevention.
Sorghum syrup does contain nearly 16 grams of sugar per one tablespoon serving, so it should certainly still be used in moderation. However, it does appear to offer some unique health benefits when used to replace table sugar or corn syrup.
Aspartame is what’s known as an artificial sweetener—meaning it isn’t technically sugar. But artificial sweeteners, which have become wildly popular, can be just as damaging (if not more so) than regular sugar, so it’s important to know about them.
Common artificial sweeteners include sucralose and erythritol, but aspartame is probably the most popular. Aspartame is used as a sweetener in approximately 6,000 foods and beverages sold worldwide, but its most common use might be in calorie-free diet soda. If you look at a product that contains an artificial sweetener, you’ll be amazed at the nutrition facts—it’s likely unbelievably low in sugar, carbs and calories. That’s because only a very small amount of artificial sweetener needs to be used to add sweetness to a food or beverage; and some artificial sweeteners are actually 600 times sweeter than sugar.
So how does something like diet soda taste so good despite being devoid (or nearly devoid) of calories, sugar and carbs? It’s not magic—it’s just a tricky use of ingredients.
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are the key to diet soda’s squeaky clean nutrition facts. Regular soda has real sugar, and with real sugar comes calories and carbohydrates. A single gram of sugar contains roughly one gram of carbohydrates and four calories. By avoiding sugar, diet soda avoids all of the calories and carbs that come with it.
For example, a can of regular Coca-Cola has 140 calories and 39 grams of carbs—almost all of which are a by-product of its 39 grams of sugar.
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame more than make up for their low-sugar and calorie content by presenting other issues. They trick your body into expecting calories when you aren’t actually consuming any, which can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and lead to overeating. Artificial sweeteners have also been shown to negatively impact the brain’s caudate head, which plays a role in food motivation and satiety.
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Something called agave nectar has got to be healthy, right? Agave! Nectar! It sounds so natural and wonderful and pure! But the reality is that agave nectar is just another sugary syrup that offers few if any nutritional benefits. Agave nectar is produced by extracting juice (nectar) from agave plants, filtering it and then heating it up so that it breaks down into simple sugars.
This processing destroys much of the useful nutrients in the agave nectar, leaving a syrup very high in fructose. In fact, agave nectar is 90-percent fructose, whereas high-fructose corn syrup is just 55 percent fructose. Although agave nectar was long considered a healthy natural alternative to sugar, its high-fructose content is now considered a major red flag by many doctors.