The next time you pick up a jar of Jif or Skippy or another brand of peanut butter, check the label not just for fat but for sugars. Do the same with spaghetti sauce and ketchup.
People expect cookies and candy, cakes and colas to contain sugar. They're supposed to be sweet but peanut butter?
The truth is that America craves sweets: This country seems to be undergoing an unrestrained escalation in sugar consumption, from gloppy grape candy to oversized, syrupy restaurant desserts.
Then there's America's most popular new cookie SnackWell's, which, being devoid of fat, is almost 72 percent sugar.
"America's sweet tooth is out of control," says Bonnie Liebman, the nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based, nutrition-oriented consumer group.
"But what's more disturbing is that sugar consumption is increasing even though there also is an increase in artificial sweeteners, which are supposed to substitute for sugar."
Sweetness is one of the primary tastes, along with sourness, saltiness and bitterness, and humans have had a penchant for sugary foods since the Ottoman Turks first refined sugar in the 14th century and began using it as a confection.
We don't need government statistics to tell us that sugar permeates our diet, that what once were occasional rewards or treats at meal's end now are common snacks and contribute much of our caloric intake.
But sugar is even more pervasive. Like salt and fat, it enhances flavor and has insinuated itself into numerous products, especially processed ones not associated with sweetness: salad dressings, soups, canned vegetables, pizza, luncheon meats, frozen entrees as well as the the spaghetti sauce and peanut butter.
This raises two questions about what might be considered our No. 1 food additive: First, just how much sugar are we eating? And is it damaging our health and well-being? We might also ponder whether it is causing us to lose our taste for foods in their natural state and for subtlety of flavor.
Last year the average American consumed 147.8 pounds of sugar and other caloric sweeteners (vs. no-calorie substances such as aspartame and saccharine).
That's about 20 pounds more than in 1985 and almost 30 pounds more than in 1975, according to figures assembled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Because these figures called disappearance data represent all the caloric sweeteners produced for foods, it includes waste, spoilage and some exportation of sugar-containing products.
A clear rise in sugar use
Still, this is a 25 percent increase in the use of caloric sweeteners during the last two decades and an average increase of 1.6 percent each year in the last 10.
Caloric sweeteners collectively called sugar include refined table sugar, fruit sugars, corn syrup, glucose, dextrose, honey and other syrups. Table sugar represents about 44 percent of the total.
"We feel our disappearance numbers are pretty good," says Peter Buzzanell, the USDA's chief sweetener analyst. "They're imperfect but extremely powerful."
Researchers estimate that the average American gets 20 percent to 22 percent of his calories from sugar.
It isn't hard to see where it comes from, says Judith J. Putman, an agricultural economist with the USDA. "Look at these 64-ounce soft drinks, especially in the fast-food places. You can't find a 12-ounce Coke," she says. "You have to buy a 20-ounce size."
Certainly a huge increase in carbonated soda consumption is one reason for more sugar intake, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS. This inexpensive caloric sweetener refined from cornstarch is rapidly replacing the more familiar sucrose (table sugar), particularly in processed foods and beverages.
More figures: Americans drank an average of 43.3 gallons of nondiet carbonated soda in 1994, compared with 29.3 gallons in 1984. That's not counting the fruit drinks and sweetened iced teas. Although sucrose consumption dropped by 1.6 pounds during that decade, HFCS use rose by almost 20 pounds per person.
Something this pleasing, something this popular with every human from newborns to octogenarians, has to be harmful, right? Surely sugar is associated with heart disease or diabetes. At the very least it must cause hyperactivity, cavities or obesity.
Not that bad
Well, no. The latest research seems to give sugar consumption at present levels a fairly clean bill of health. That we are eating more of it may mean that it is just taking the place of fat in the diet.
Three dozen scientists at an international symposium on sugar and health last July concluded that an increase in the intake of sugar in developed countries has not led to "a dilution of the nutritional quality of the diet."
The workshop, sponsored by the International Life Sciences Institute and published in a special edition of the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that as sugar consumption increases, fat consumption decreases and that fat is more likely than sugar to promote obesity.