A student running through first floor The Denaples Center wants a drink before class and grabs a Vitaminwater. It’s healthier than the Coke on the other shelf and she feels good about herself as they run to class. “Look at me being healthy,” they think. Avoiding soda is chalked up as a win. Little do they know that the pink liquid they’re guzzling in ethics class will be processed by their metabolism in the same way as a bottle of Coke.
Sugar has a different meaning for everyone. For some it’s a treat or something to be avoided, for others it’s just an ingredient they don’t notice at all. However, at the end of the day everyone is aware that sugar, especially in excess, isn’t good for you. But how aware is the average person about how much added sugar is hiding in her food or of the many disguises it can take? Classic sugar cane is refined and dried to make cane sugar, or the classic white crystals that probably popped into your head the second you saw the letters s-u-g-a-r strung together, but this is not the only form commonly used and most people are unaware of how many substances your body metabolizes in exactly the same way.
For example, the poor unknowing Vitaminwater student who didn’t recognize “crystalline fructose” listed separately from “cane sugar” on the label, even though they are fundamentally the same thing. Such food labels provide an insidious method of entering unwanted sugar into people’s diets. The Food and Drug Administration requires that all food and drink companies display their ingredients on their label, with the most prevalent ingredients listed first. This way, the common consumer can understand what they’re eating. However, companies avoid losing customers to the sugar stigma with a clever loophole. Calling sugar by 56 names, some of which may be unidentifiable to the thirsty college student. Diatase, organic cane syrup, diastatic malt, panocha, treacle, sorghum, caramel, dextran, panela, honey, muscovado, sucrose, treacle, organic agave and crystalline fructose are a few of the listed ingredients that could be mistaken for something other than sugar, but don’t be fooled — sugar is sugar and it’s everywhere.
Another way sugar is snuck into the mindful person’s diet is through misleading labels. Things are labeled “less sugar” or “organic” with a tree on it and consumers unconsciously perceive it to be healthier than the alternatives.
For example, the Vitaminwater label says “vitamins + water = all you need.” Although humans may need vitamins and water to stay alive, they certainly don’t need 39 grams of sugar in a drink. To put that number into perspective, the American Heart Association recommends that an adult consume no more than 47.5 grams per day. The FDA website cites studies that have suggested that it is difficult to meet nutritional needs within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of total daily calories from added sugar. Despite these guidelines, studies have shown that the average American adult consumes over 100 grams per day.
The metabolic pathways inside the body aren’t susceptible to marketing, despite misnomers and the promise of food being “healthy.” Metabolic pathways treat sugar as sugar. So feeling better about eating sweeteners or sugar “alternatives” is nothing but a marketing trick. Hopefully next time you’ll read that Vitaminwater label a little more closely.