Revising (slightly) ideas about sugar in our diets


February 08, 1994|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Special to The Sun

Are you sugar shocked? Two more studies published last week joined a growing list proving sugar does not cause hyperactivity in children. In fact, it may have a calming effect.

This is good news, because it allows a little breathing space in the way we eat. But just a little. A radio disc jockey summed up the rebound position, saying "I guess that means kids can have all the sugar they want." Wrong. Kids still need to eat mostly high nutrition food.

The average American gets about 11 percent of calories from 53 grams of added sugars, based on the Nationwide Food Consumption Survey of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Nutritionally, that's right on target according to the Food Guide Pyramid.

That's about 13 teaspoons (at 4 calories per gram) of sugar added to all your food for the entire day. Most of us think we don't add that much sugar, but we get it from some surprising places.

We've learned to look for added sugar in cereals. Natural oatmeal contains no added sugar, for instance. But one ounce ( 1/2 cup) Post Banana Nut Crunch has 6 grams (1 1/2 teaspoon) and 1 ounce ( 3/4 cup) Kellogg's Rice Krispie Treats has 9 grams (2 teaspoons).

Eleven ounces of Budget Gourmet Macaroni and Cheese contains 11 grams of added sugar, and one order of KFC vegetable medley salad offers 16 grams.

This is not particularly good or bad. It's just a way of making clear that adding sugar to some foods makes them taste better. And a little is OK, especially for children with high energy needs and small stomachs who are already eating lots of healthy foods.

By May, all processed foods will bear the Nutrition Facts food label, which includes information on added sugars. We'll find some big surprises there.

The Nutrition Facts will show that we're probably getting half of our 53 grams of sugar in food without even knowing it. So the amount we voluntarily add to our meals and snacks should be quite small, about 6 or 7 teaspoons daily.

This has nothing to do with hyperactivity and everything to do with healthy diets. Eating too many high sugar foods displaces better food choices.

One 12-ounce Coca-Cola Classic, for instance, contains 38 grams of sugar (9 1/2 teaspoons), or 70 percent of the day's allowance, and 144 calories, but offers no vitamins, minerals or protein. Twelve ounces of skim milk has about the same calories, and provides protein, vitamin A, many B vitamins, and half the day's calcium along with potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. When kids drink Coke instead of milk, they get enough calories to stop feeling hungry, but they get short-changed in the body-building department.

So the message isn't exactly "knock yourself out." It just means we can relax and not feel guilty if the kids eat some sweets every now and then.

But we do need to eat more fruits and vegetables. Only 10 percent of Americans eat the minimum 2 fruits and 3 vegetables daily. Here's where added sugar can actually improve a kid's diet. Perhaps a spoonful of sugar would help the strawberries go down. Or some marshmallows might make a plate of yams palatable!

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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