More than Sweet: A Food Science Perspective on the Role of Sugars in Food

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For the first time, in 2015, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) included a recommendation to limit added sugars in the diet to less than 10% of total calories. According to the DGA’s definition, “added sugars” are “syrups and other caloric sweeteners used as a sweetener in other food products.” That means, added sugars includes brown sugar, corn syrup, honey, molasses, and any other sweetener with calories that is added to a food or beverage during preparation.

Most of the added sugar content of American diets comes from beverages (like soft drinks, fruit drinks, sport and energy drinks, coffee, and tea), snacks, and sweets. Yet, sugars are added to many other food products, too, including condiments, breads, salad dressings, dairy products, and spreads.

Added sugars serve a function in these food products besides providing sweetness. To explore the various functions of added sugars in food products, we interviewed Roger Clemens, DrPh, a food science and nutrition expert who has served as both the President of the Institute of Food Technologists and as a member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Dr. Clemens also co-authored a recent review paper discussing the role of sugars in food and health.

Food Insight (FI): Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, Dr. Clemens! To start off, can you explain why sugars are added to so many foods that we don’t think of as “sweet,” like salad dressings, marinades, and frozen meals?

Roger Clemens (RC): Sugar really has three functions in food besides sweetness: to help stabilize emulsions, add flavor, and improve texture. [FI: Emulsifiers improve the texture of foods and prevent components in foods from separating.]

FI: Given that it has several functions and is found in many foods, do you think the ubiquity of added sugars in food products poses a risk to consumer health?

RC: I do not believe it does. Only when something is consumed in excess will it compromise health. Even taking in vitamins and drinking water are problems when consumed in excess. To consume these food components in moderation is not an issue. Fruit, for instance, is mostly sugar and water. A few pieces of fruit a day are probably good for you. Excessive fruit consumption on a daily basis would be detrimental to health. Balance, moderation, and variety are the main principles here. To eliminate sugar, you would have to stop eating fruits and vegetables. Nature has sugar in everything it grows.

FI: Can you address the common claim that sugar is “addictive”? Is there truth to this claim? If not, why is it so widely discussed?

RC: It is not addictive in the true sense of that word. Consuming sugar is a pleasure. Fruits like apples and bananas, they are sweet and pleasurable, in contrast to things that are harsh and bitter, like medication. Astringent, tart, or bitter capsules of medicine are things we don’t like, and there’s a good reason we don’t like them.

But no, in the true sense of the word, sugar consumption is not an addiction. According to DSM-IV and DSM-V criteria, addiction would lead to withdrawal symptoms, which we do not see with the removal of sugar. [FI: The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and includes criteria for classifying and diagnosing mental disorders]. People claim that sugar is addictive and that is untrue.

FI: Are there risks to decreasing the sugar content of food products? Or, can it be accomplished easily?

RC: If you remove sugar from food products, you have to find another ingredient that serves the same multiple functions. A better question might be- what is a replacement that consumers will accept and is safe? Is what replaces sugar going to be expensive?

FI: What are your recommendations for consumers in terms of choosing foods that contain added sugars?

RC: Many foods have sugar in them. Meat has glycogen in it, which is a kind of sugar. [FI: Glycogen is the form of sugar stored in muscles for energy]. Fruits, vegetables, and milk all have naturally-occurring sugars in them. Even dietary fiber is a kind of sugar. It’s a carbohydrate. It’s most important to keep the basic tenets of a healthy diet in mind: balance, moderation, and variety.

Thanks, Dr. Clemens, for sharing your insights on sugars with us! As Dr. Clemens mentioned, while the DGA recommends limiting added sugars, they can still be part of a healthful diet. Check out our facts sheet “Making Sense of Sugars” for even more information.

This blog post was written by Julie Hess, PhD, the 2017 Sylvia Rowe Fellow.