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Sweetness and Light: What You Need to Know About Sugar

"How sweet it is" depends entirely on you. Whether you reach for the sugar bowl, the honey pot, or a packet of artificial sweetener, it's all a matter of taste and calories.

Sugar fuels the body and every cell in it. A variety of foods naturally contain sugar. The most common sugars are in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). No matter how sugar starts out, your body turns it into glucose.

Types of Sugar

Table sugar, whether it's white and granular or brown and sticky, comes from refining sugar cane or beets. Beyond sweetness, sugar has taste and texture and properties that affect cooking and baking. It also has calories and carbohydrates for dieters and diabetics to count. The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend choosing nutrient and fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and grains often and choosing and preparing foods with little added sugar.

Some studies suggest honey may contain antioxidant properties. However, since the actual health benefits of honey are debatable, the use of honey as a sweetener is really a matter of preference.

The non-nutritive sweeteners that come out of laboratories have no calories. Gram for gram, they can be much sweeter than sugar; that's why the packets are so small. They don't cook the same way as sugar, and they can have some added tastes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the pink, blue, and yellow packets and continues to monitor their use.

The Sweet Life

Here are some healthy tips for incorporating sugar into your diet:

  • Be fruitful. Whole fruits offer more than sweet taste. Fruits offer vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

  • Read labels. They'll tell you total carbohydrates and what sugars are in a serving. Sucrose, levulose, dextrose, maltose, fructose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, or fruit juice concentrates are added sugar. They're often present in soft drinks, candy, cookies, and pastries, and they can contribute to tooth decay.

  • Train your tongue. You can learn to enjoy food that's less sweet. Buy unsweetened cereals and add fruit, sugar, or sweetener to your taste.

  • Read up on going "sugar free." Products labeled "sugar free" have pluses and minuses. Calorie-free and sugar-free chewing gums can actually aid dental health. But very high levels of sorbitol, often found in sugar-free chocolate candy, can cause gastric distress, bloating, gassiness, and diarrhea.

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"Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed 2013.

"Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer." National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. Accessed 2013.

"Antioxidant Capacity of Honeys from Various Floral Sources." Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; 2002;8;50(10):3050-5. Abstract: Accessed 2013.

"Keep Your Little Monster's Teeth Away From Harm This Halloween." Academy of General Dentistry. Accessed 2013.

"Gas in the Digestive Tract." National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, National Institutes of Health. Accessed 2013.

"Diet and Dental Health." Mouth Healthy, American Dental Association. Accessed 2013.

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