Sugar: It’s not the devil, but it is a problem

Sugar: It’s not the devil, but it is a problem

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You've likely heard nutrition experts say, "The dose makes the poison." What we mean is that a food or ingredient in and of itself isn't toxic, but when consumed in large amounts it becomes detrimental to health.

The topic of sugar perfectly suits this adage.

Let’s be clear; I do not think sugar is the devil. In small amounts it makes life sweeter, both literally and figuratively. The problem is that very few Americans consume sugar in appropriate amounts. Most are eating way too much in the form of added sugars, and from sources they’re not even aware of.

Cookies, cake, candy and the like can absolutely fit into a healthy diet…when eaten on occasion. Some enjoy treats more than occasionally and, yes, that's a problem. But it's the hard-to-identify sources of added sugar that are most problematic, because we don't even know we're eating them or how much of them. Savory packaged food products are loaded with added sugars in many different forms, including marinades, dressings and sauces, soups, whole-grain breads, crackers and cereals, chips, bars and most snacks, frozen entrees and so much more.

So, I was happy to hear that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is recommending a daily cap on sugar for the first time. While some think placing a cap won’t lead to change, I beg to differ. Discussion in and of itself catalyzes conversation and awareness-raising (including this article) so people can begin educating themselves about the effects of eating too much sugar and learning how much is lurking in their everyday foods—foods touted and believed to be healthful and virtuous.

I am also a proponent of the FDA’s potential change to the nutrition facts label to help consumers differentiate between naturally occurring and added sugars. Today’s label states total sugars only, making it difficult to know how much is coming from wholesome foods, where it is naturally-occurring—like fruits, grains and milk—versus how much is coming from added sources—like refined powdered, crystallized and liquid sugars.

So, let’s bring this conversation to the foodservice arena. If the FDA sees enough scientific evidence regarding the negative effects of our sugar consumption to do something about it, shouldn’t we in foodservice be addressing the issue, too?

Let’s face it, just like salt, it’s cheap and easy to flavor and balance the foods we serve by adding a little sugar here and a lot there. The problem is ingredient statements and nutrition facts labels aren’t required at the point of service in foodservice, so consumers have no idea how much added sugar is going into the pasta sauce or vinaigrette dressing they believe to be nutritious.

Let’s do our part to reduce sugar content in foods that really shouldn’t have much sugar in them, if any at all. The more we can help our customers eat the way they want, the more likely they will choose our dining locations over the option next door.

Here are some thoughts to get you started:

•    It's hard to know where to start without a benchmark. Go through the exercise of reviewing the nutrition facts for 15 of the meal entrees you serve. You might be surprised to learn how much we rely on sugar for the meals we make. Enlist your resident registered dietitian to review the ingredients and nutrition facts in both the packaged foods and housemade options you offer to see where added sugars can be reduced. Step outside of your comfort zone and get creative. Using sweet foods in dishes—like fresh and dried fruits and roasted vegetables—can go a long way toward bringing sweetness to a dish without having to reach for the sugar bowl. Adding golden raisins to that composed grain dish or caramelized onions to a soup might be all that is needed to create a delicious dish and quell a customer’s sweet craving.

•    Provide sugar-free foundation ingredients for self-serve stations like plain oatmeal and yogurt at breakfast and salad bars. If customers want to sweeten their customized dish they can. To help them do it better, offer naturally sweet options like fresh and dried fruits as well as savory options for a new and healthier twist to an old favorite.

•    Make your own versions of packaged foods that contain too much added sugars, like soups, sauces, dressings and marinades. Your food will taste better and your food costs will go down.  

•    Offer savory options of commonly sweet items, like pancakes and waffles, hot cereals, baked goods and energy bars. Not only will less sugar go into these items to begin with but customers may also view them differently and flavor them with healthier seasonings and toppings as a result.

•    Display unsweetened options as toppings and add-ins, including:
•    unsweetened non-dairy milks for beverage stations and smoothie bars
•    sugar-free nuts, dried fruits and other toppings for oatmeal, yogurt and salad bars
•    sugar-free nut butters for the deli bar and
•    fruits canned in their own juice (rather than syrup) for the salad bar.

•    Create beverage station options with no added sugars such as infused waters and teas. If customers really want to sweeten on their own they can, but the original offering should be sugar-free for those that prefer it.

I challenge you to gradually review your current offerings and see where added sugars can be reduced. Please share your findings regarding the sugar amounts that surprised you in certain foods and dishes, as well as the creative solutions you came up with. We can all help each other think outside the sugar bowl.  

To a healthy and (moderately) sweet new year!

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