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Cut back on sugar, not flavor

SHAPE November 2016

The holidays are a popular time for menu items high in sugar, but smart chefs and restaurateurs can help reduce America's intake by cutting back.

Americans historically have been known to possess a notorious sweet tooth — particularly during the holiday season when sugar sales climb. However, the lure of all things sweet has begun to be tempered more recently by a growing awareness of negative health effects stemming from the consumption of too much sugar.

While sugar provides the body with energy, excessive sugar consumption has been linked to such diseases as obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer and other health problems. Sugars occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, but are also widely added to foods for flavor, texture and color. The problem with added sugars, experts say, is that they provide “empty” calories with no additional nutrients.

Blaire Newhard, a culinary dietitian at Healthy Dining, points out that the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10 percent each day. “That’s 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000 calorie diet,” she says.

According to the American Heart Association, she continues, 100 calories, or about 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar per day is suggested for women and 150 calories, or about 9 teaspoons (37.5 grams) added sugar per day is suggested for men. “But studies show the average American actually consumes 126.4 grams per day of added sugar,” she says. “This is over three times the recommended amount per day for men and five times the recommended amount for women.”

Opt for balanced diet

As a result, nutrition experts have been urging Americans to cut back on the amount of added sugar they consume daily in favor pursuing a more balanced diet containing adequate amounts of essential nutrients.

“Your body turns the carbohydrates you eat into glucose —- the brain’s preferred fuel,” says Jen Bruning, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Any glucose that your body can’t use that day is stored — both in muscles and to a larger extent as fat. Over time too much glucose storage causes weight gain. Excess body fat, particularly around the waist area, can increase a person’s chances of lots of different chronic diseases, including heart disease, certain cancers, hip and knee joint degeneration, and diabetes.

“Eating carbs is a healthy part of a varied diet, but sticking with whole grains, which contain more protein, fiber and vitamins, can help a person feel full and satisfied, without overdoing it on carbs and causing blood sugar spikes,” Bruning says.

A study by research firm Mintel found that Americans are taking such warnings to heart. Mintel says 70 percent of those adults polled said they were concerned about how sugar impacts their overall health. Meanwhile, 72 percent of millennials (born between 1977 and 2001) voiced concern about sugar consumption, while 70 percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976) also are worried about the amount of sugar in their diets.

Focus on added sugars

In an effort to provide more nutritional transparency for consumers, the FDA this year finalized the new Nutrition Facts Panel for retail and packaged goods, updating the panel to incorporate new nutritional information and changes in the way Americans eat and drink — marking the first major revision since 1993.

The FDA revised the label to emphasize total calories, added sugars and such nutrients as potassium and vitamin D. “The new nutrition facts panels include a line for added sugar,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, RDN, founder and president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting. “This will likely heighten consumer awareness and concern over added sugar in foods and beverages posting nutrition facts panels.”

Sugar consumption, in fact, has already begun to decline. According to Nielsen data, sugar purchases have decreased 4.4 percent in the year ended October 2015, reflecting the biggest decline in sugar sales in at least four years.

Part of the decline is due to the decrease in sales of carbonated soft drinks. According to Mintel's Healthy Dining Trends - U.S. - March 2016, 23 percent of consumers report ordering CSDs less often when they dine out and 38 percent believe CSDs are too high in sugar. This is worrisome for restaurants given the high margins CSDs offer, Mintel says. Nevertheless, there are healthful alternatives that appeal to consumers and offer good returns for restaurants, such as freshly prepared juice drinks and flavored waters.

In fact, experts cite many ways restaurateurs can provide their customers with alternatives containing less sugar — particularly during the holiday season. “In most restaurants added sugars are found in two major categories: sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts and baked goods,” says Myrdal Miller. “Restaurant operators can offer a wider variety of lightly sweetened or unsweetened beverages. And desserts and baked goods can be served in smaller portions.”

Other tips include:

• If marinara and tomato sauces are made in house, try eliminating any added sugar and using sweeter varieties of tomatoes, Healthy Dining says. If you’re purchasing pre-made tomato sauces, opt for a no-sugar-added product.

• Pairing savory flavors with sweet dishes can be a great way to substitute sugar for other ingredients, Bruning says. “There is a huge trend right now in flavor-layering: savory plus sweet plus spicy, that kind of thing.”

• Substitute savory dipping sauces for sweet ones.

• Pre-battered fried foods may contain added sugars Opt for grilled, baked or sautéed items

• Experiment with fruit-based desserts. Naturally sweet and flavorful fruits and fruit purees can pop a dessert in new and interesting ways as well as exposing guests to fruit flavors they haven’t tried before. Think passion fruit, guava, chermoula, dragonfruit or rambutan.

• House-made vinaigrettes with herbs and citrus can forgo the addition of sugar. Making sure the acidity/vinegar is just right will help round out the dressing without the addition of sugar to cut the acidity. This often means reducing the amount of vinegar in the oil-to-vinegar ratio.

• Replace refined sugar in recipes by using such natural sweeteners as honey, agave, nectar, maple syrup or molasses.

• For Thanksgiving dishes, sweet potatoes are naturally sweet, so if you have sweet potato fries, baked sweet potato or other sweet potato-based menu items, try reducing or eliminating any additional sugary ingredients in the recipe. Sweet potatoes go well with cinnamon seasoning, which will further enhance the perception of sweetness. Consider going a more savory route and adding a little salt, garlic and herbs to have a nice balance of sweet and savory.

• Make cranberry relish sweet with fruits like ripe Bartlett pears or golden raisins.

• For classic desserts, consider using sugar where it will have the most impact, says Myrdal Miller. ”You can make pumpkin pie with half the sugar, but make sure your whipped cream is sweet since that's what will hit the palate first.”

• For cranberry sauce, try making it with gelatin (so that it sets without sugar) and adding orange juice and ginger for sweetness and zip. Add cranberries to other dishes instead of making traditional sauce. The zip and light sweetness from dried cranberries is delicious with roasted vegetables or in salads.

Whatever culinary route they take, though, chefs and operators can be part of the sugar solution not the problem. “Restaurants can really lead the charge when it comes to reducing added sugars in their foods,” says Bruning.



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