Perryman Nutrition Column: Sugar Calories Add Up

Note to Reporters: The following column is written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, College of Applied Human Sciences. Perryman also is a registered dietitian.

Growing up I heard the stories about the sugar ration coupons during WWII. Some years ago when I visited Poland sugar was rationed and our hosts were ecstatic that we brought chocolate bars for the children. In America today sugar is used in food processing and stirred in and sprinkled on foods made at home. If you’re counting, one teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 16 calories and those teaspoons can add up quickly. Drinking one 12-ounce regular soft drink means taking in about 15 teaspoons which translates into 5 tablespoons of sugar!


White table sugar is made from sugar beets or sugar cane. Sugar is naturally present in fruit and honey in the form of fructose and in milk as lactose. Misinformation still abounds on which forms of sugar are best and how and what their functions are in food.


· Sugar is often thought of as merely empty calories providing little nutrition. Generally sugar isn’t eaten by the spoonful but is an ingredient in foods we make or buy. Certainly some foods with surgar are more nutritious than others. A muffin made with whole wheat flour and other whole grains, fruit and nuts will provide fiber and other healthy nutrients. A muffin made solely with white flour and sugar contributes little else besides calories.

· Without sugar yeast could not ferment to create beer, wine, cheese and yeast breads. The presence of sugar also plays a role in inhibiting food spoilage.

· One teaspoon of honey contains 22 calories and is sweeter than the same amount of table sugar because it has a higher fructose content. As an important side note raw honey may also contain botulism spores and should not be fed to children less than one year of age.

· Honey and sugar cannot be substituted directly for each other in recipes because honey also contributes liquid. If you have a supply of honey that you’d like to use in recipes to replace sugar, be patient because it will take some experimentation to get the proportions right.

· If you decide to try to alter the source of sugar in a recipe keep in mind the important functions of sugar. Have you ever tried eliminating or seriously reducing the sugar in a baked good without making an adequate substitution? If so the end product could lack flavor, won’t be a nicely browned color, and be dry and tough.


Nonnutritive sweeteners – or alternative and artificial sweeteners — are another option for consumers and can have a place in the diet for those counting calories. There are urban myths about which of these artificial sweeteners is better—or worse – from a health standpoint. However, it’s a personal choice regarding which, if any, of these to select.


Some nonnutritive sweeteners can be used in cooking and baking, but not all of them, so it is important to check their labels before using them in that way.


All nonnutritive sweeteners are considered safe for a healthy person, but pregnant women and children should be cautious because overuse of these can replace more nutritious foods.


High fructose corn syrup or HFCS is made from corn and can be found in many processed foods and beverages. Unlike nonnutritive sweeteners, it’s not available on grocery shelves. Controversy continues to swirl around whether HFCS is a healthy option and if it is a primary cause of obesity.


The average person’s daily sugar intake has increased to about 25 teaspoons of sugar a day from all forms of sugar including HFCS. Regular soft drinks contribute 33 percent of the sugar in our diet followed by candy, cakes, cookies and pies which add 16 to 13 percent of the total sugar we consume.


The general consensus is that too many calories from any source without sufficient activity to use those calories will likely result in weight gain.


There are many other forms of sugar such as dextrose, maltose and invert sugar. Though the chemical structures may differ, all sugars provide calories without an added nutritional benefit. Check the labels and cue in on ingredients ending in “–ose”, which means sugar.


If sugar in some form is the first, second or third ingredient listed on the label, it means it’s one of the most used ingredients in the product. The lists of ingredients are listed in the order of the largest quantity to the smallest quantity. If you see sugar that far up on the list, consider another product. Also, note that more than one form of sugar can be in one processed food.


Halloween signals the start of the ‘sugar season’ with Thanksgiving and Christmas not far behind. Though no definitive link has been found between sweeteners, obesity and good health the optimal goal is to find the right balance of food choices and remember to keep your body moving.


For more information on the recent Guidelines for Sugar Intake by the American Heart Association go to