The modern American…er, Western diet is awash in sugar. It is estimated that Americans consume an average of 47 sugar cubes or 10 teaspoons of high fructose corn syrup per day. This compares with 39 sugar cubes in the 1980s or 34 sugar cubes in the 1950s. I do not know if those levels in the 1950s were healthy, as it is my sneaking suspicion that the health crisis related to sugar is really a story of post-war America which begins in the 1950s. Nonetheless, we eat too much god damned sugar.
All of this sugar—whether it is HFCS or table sugar or fair trade Turbinado or organic raw sugar from lowland plains of Maui—is killing us. Depending upon the measurement criteria almost 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. Almost 35% are obese and over 6% are considered extremely obese. The problem with our weight has gotten so bad that the U.S. military is concerned that the population is “too fat to fight.”
Our collective expanding waistline is just the first sign indicator of greater problems to come. If you think a lot of people being overweight is bad, just wait until those numbers translate into a lot of people having Type II diabetes. Diabetes and its related conditions are estimated to cost Americans over $250 billion per year and it is going to get worse as the prevalence of the disease increases. This is a direct function of our love affair with sugar.
However, these trends and statistics are not new. What has changed in the last few years is that focus has been put squarely on added sugar. This is a story about the sugar that we have put into processed foods making us sick. Any dietician will tell you that the fructose in an apple—chemically similar to HFCS and metabolically the same—is not the problem because you cannot eat enough apples to get the same deleterious impact as hammering home a Big Gulp full of Coca-Cola. It’s like trying to equivocate drinking a glass of wine with dinner to doing keg stands at a tailgate. There are some similarities, but the differences are what matter.
The easy answer is to make all of our food from scratch. I am sure that there are people with both the time and patience to pull that off. I congratulate them on their being awesome. I am not nearly as awesome. Sometimes I need a quick solution to hungry kids while I assemble dinner after working the entire day.
The go-to solution in my house to hungry kids is a cup of yogurt and a banana. The banana speaks for itself, but the cup of yogurt is a Trojan horse for sugar. I had never really thought about the sugar content until a few months ago. Guess what? You might as well give your children a candy bar if you are going to feed them most flavored yogurts. Compare the nutritional labels of a standard cup of national brand strawberry yogurt versus equivalent sized cup of strawberry yogurt from Kalona SuperNatural:
The strawberry yogurt from Kalona SuperNatural has 104 calories for a 6 oz serving and 6 grams of sugar. The irony is that the Kalona SuperNatural yogurt has significantly fewer calories while having more fat. Where do you think those calories are coming from? That’s right. Sugar.
Damn. 18 grams of sugar versus 6 grams of sugar. The Kalona SuperNatural yogurt has two-thirds the sugar.
Things are not as clear cut as the math would make it seem. Nutritional labels are not required to show the sugars that are naturally occurring versus the sugars that are added. In yogurt this means that you do not get to see the sugars present as lactose versus the added sugars like HFCS or sucrose. Depending upon the brand and variety of yogurt a six ounce serving may contain anywhere from 13 grams of lactose to as few as 2 to 6 grams of lactose. It matters if the yogurt is fat free where more lactose is present to take the place of removed fats or if the yogurt is Greek in style which has lactose skimmed out. This is why reading the nutritional label is not going to always provide a clear answer. A Greek style yogurt may appear to have less sugar, but the reduction in sugar is really a function of having less lactose not less added sugar which is the component we are trying to avoid.
Assuming that these two yogurts were made in similar ways with similar base ingredients you can really start to see the difference in added sugar.
Children are supposed to only get approximately 12 grams of added sugar per day. A single cup of grocery store brand strawberry yogurt puts them nearly all of the way to the total. And that was supposed to be a healthy alternative. See what I mean about yogurt being a Trojan horse for added sugar? It’s literally a battle of grams and teaspoons when it comes to cutting out the sugar.
The moral of the story is that we can find better alternatives to the things that we feed ourselves and our children. In my house, we went cold turkey on a lot of sugar laden items. One day there was your standard strawberry yogurt and the next it was replaced by something with a lot less sugar. I think there was one complaint and away we went.