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Examining the role of sugar in the modern diet

There is a debate raging about the role of sugar in today's diet and its relationship to disease.

There are those who say sugar ruins the nation's health and it's a primary dietary evil that leads to obesity and other diseases.

Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco claimed sugar is essentially a toxin that causes lifestyle diseases, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

They proposed that sugar be regulated like tobacco and alcohol with taxes on sugary products, age limits applied to certain foods and beverages, and restrictions on advertising (namely ads targeted to children). They also argued that sugar is addictive.

The FDA defines addiction as craving for and continued use of a substance that is hazardous to your well-being.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that sugary foods cause -- in the brains of animals -- a chemical effect similar to that of addictive drugs like cocaine. Whether this response constitutes addiction in the technical sense is still debated.

What is clear is that people have a hard time giving up sweets. We consume large amounts of sugar. The average American consumes 34 teaspoons of sugars a day, which is equal to 500-plus calories. This averages more than 100 pounds of sugars per person each year.

Sugar intake doesn't just come from cake, candy or sugar added to your tea. Almost all processed foods in the supermarket contain extra sugar. In fact, a large number of sugars are used in processed foods, so that reading food labels can be confusing. Some of the worst offenders are sodas -- which can contain as much as 10 teaspoons per can -- and many "low-fat" products.

High fructose corn syrup has replaced sucrose (sugar) in many food products. HFCS is a mixture of two simple sugars: glucose and fructose, which is similar to the composition of sucrose. This sweetener is only sold for processed foods, yet, it provides about 8 percent of the total calories in the American diet.

Sugar contains only calories. It provides no other nutrients. When sugar calories replace more nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables, your whole diet suffers.

Sweet foods are generally a safe source of calories, something that has been important to survival throughout most of history. Today, with an ample supply of safe food, the appeal of sweetness is no longer protective. Most people must work to keep their caloric intakes at healthful levels.

So how do you keep your sugar consumption at healthy levels?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines recommends adults receive no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar a day -- a third of the current average.

Uncovering sugar in your diet isn't easy. Sugar often hides under several names and turns up in foods you wouldn't suspect, like bread, crackers, salad dressing, ketchup and light mayonnaise. Theses tips will help reduce the total sugar intake of you and your family.

• Serve smaller portions of sweets and desserts, so you still can enjoy these foods.

• Switch to unsweetened beverages like water, 100-percent juice or low-fat milk products instead of sugar-laden sodas and juice drinks.

• Avoid impulse-buying sugary foods in checkout lines.

• Don't offer sweet foods as a reward, especially to children.

• Make fruit your everyday dessert -- baked apples, berries, frozen juice bars or a fruit salad should be your go-to desserts.

• Make sweet treats really "treats," not every-day food items.

• Read food labels carefully and choose those that contain the least amount of sugar.

• Avoid foods that have been modified to be low-fat but have increased sugar.

• Visit to get more advice on general nutrition and to help reduce your sugar intake

Researchers at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center are evaluating the effects of different sweetening agents on the control of blood sugar in a study called the Glycemic Effects of Honey.

You can help with this research by applying to be a participant. Go to the website: www.ars.usda.

gov/npa/gfhnrc if you're interested in participating.

Raatz received her master of science degree in foods and nutrition at Eastern Michigan University, a master's degree in public healthy in epidemiology and a doctorate in human and clinical nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the evaluation of the role of dietary macronutrient distribution in the promotion of optimal health and the prevention of chronic diseases. She primarily works with the utilization of whole foods diets to modify energy distribution from macronutrient substrates. Her work is focused primarily on macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein and fat) modification for metabolic control, body weight management, and the prevention of chronic diseases.