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Sweet Surprise: Guess Where Your Added Sugar Is Coming From?

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The grand jury has deliberated, and the verdict is in! It's not necessarily a new debate, but the usual suspects are out. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) just released the latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) on Americans' sugar consumption, and the results are quite surprising. 

Here are some of the findings that really grabbed my attention:

Men have the real sweet tooth: Turns out that men consume more calories per day from added sugars than women, and it's the men in their 20s and 30s consuming the most.

Latinos are no worse off than white Americans when it comes to added sugars: Non-Hispanic black men and women ages 20-39 consumed the most added sugars. The CDC states, "No significant differences of calories consumed from added sugars were found between non-Hispanic white and Mexican-American men or women." Still, that doesn't mean we're out of the woods. The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued in 2010, "recommends limiting total intake of discretionary calories -- including both added sugars and solid fats -- to 5 percent to 15 percent per day." That's our total intake, and Latinos are taking in more than 12 percent of our discretionary calories from added sugars alone -- this figure doesn't account for calories from fats.

Older, wealthier and wiser: As we age, our consumption of added sugars actually decreases, and the same holds true as our income increases. When it comes to children and adolescents, however, the numbers shift. The consumption of added calories from sugars increased with increasing age for those under 20, without regard to race. This, to me, screams out for greater education in our country.

Home is where we indulge the most: More of the calories from added sugars were consumed at home (67 percent for foods) rather than away from home.  

It's what you eat, not necessarily what you drink: Contrary to previous research, the real surprise came from learning that the majority of our sugar intake came from foods (67 percent) rather than beverages (33 percent). We all know that breads, pastries, jams and syrups are foods with added sugars, but have you considered some of these surprising sources: baked beans, dried cranberries (without a sweetener, cranberries can be very tart), barbecue sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup, and fat-free salad dressings (some manufacturers rely on sugar or salt to add flavor when the fat is eliminated)? It's easy to blame it on what we drink, but more and more, we're seeing a reverse of this trend. In fact, this month, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published research showing a reduction in the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages over the past 10 years among both adults (23 percent) and youth (30.5 percent). These numbers represent a big shift, and I believe it's time to have a closer look at the whole diet.

Although these results are still showing a relatively high intake of added sugars, we are reminded once again that obesity is a multi-causal issue that can't be solved by targeting one food or beverage alone. Rather, a solution will require comprehensive efforts to educate American consumers about the importance of balancing calories, consuming in moderation and participating in physical activity.  By focusing on soft drinks alone, we are missing the bigger picture of the problem. Let's focus on simple tactics such as using smaller plates and cups, cooking with less fat, sugar and salt and trying to move a little more each day. 

Let's remember that a healthy lifestyle is about moderation, balancing calorie intake and taking part in appropriate levels of exercise. Only those factors -- along with simple, everyday nutrition messages -- will truly solve our obesity issue. 

Sylvia Meléndez-Klinger, MS, RD, LDN, provides expert advice to food, beverage and pharmaceutical companies, including The Coca-Cola Company, about healthy eating in a practical and easy way. Her recipes have appeared in television segments, product packaging, cookbooks and national health and fitness campaigns.

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