Five questions: Who needs sugar?

With Halloween candy still piled high and the pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving approaching, we've entered the season of sweet. It continues through the jelly doughnuts of Hanukkah and the sugar plums of Christmas. Then there's New Year's, the Super Bowl, and perhaps the sweetest holiday of all, Valentine's Day.

Estimates of American sugar consumption vary - we're talking added sugars, not the sugar inherent in, say, fruit - but by all accounts it has grown significantly in recent decades. Our consumption of corn sweeteners, in particular, grew eightfold between the 1950s and 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 2007-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found Americans are eating up to nearly 20 teaspoons a day - more than twice the amount most health officials advise.

Drexel University's Stella L. Volpe, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition Sciences, focuses her research on the prevention of obesity and diabetes. She spoke to us recently about sugar.

Do we really need sugar?

We do not. Sugar is empty calories. Although there is some advice - the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar in the diet to no more than 100 calories a day for most women, and no more than 150 a day for most men - there are no official U.S. dietary requirements for sugars. No requirements that say we should have only X amounts of sugar. There's a reason for that. Based on research, it's not as if there's an X to Y to Z link from sugar consumption to diabetes, for example. There is no cause and effect there. The most common cause of type 2 diabetes mellitus is obesity. Does that mean excess sugar consumption? Sure. But it's really the total amount of calories people consume that results in obesity. That is, energy intake is greater than energy expenditure.

Why do you think consumption rates have been rising?

It's likely due to the increase in processed foods. Any way you look at it - from the grocery store shelves to fast-food restaurants and even other restaurants - it surrounds us a lot more than when I was younger. Food is so easy to get, and prepackaged foods are inexpensive, and people like them because they're convenient. Another prominent source of added sugars is consumption of regular sodas.

Besides, say, putting less sugar in your coffee and declining that luscious-looking dessert, what can we do to reduce the intake of added sugars?

Read labels. People do not have to be obsessive about this, but it's important. Just read them and know what's in the foods you consume. If you cannot really pronounce it, maybe you should not be eating it or drinking it. The shorter the list of ingredients, the better. If an item on the list has an "ose" at the end, it's usually a type of sugar. For example: Glucose. Fructose. Sucralose. Dextrose.

There are so many different kinds of sweeteners. Is one kind of sugar better than another?

I get asked that all the time. Let's start with high-fructose corn syrup. The reason it's used so often is that it's inexpensive and you do not need a lot of it to sweeten a product. So it's cheaper and it's more efficient. It has been given bad press because it may be one of the causes of obesity. However, not all research has shown this.

People think that agave and honey are healthier than regular sugar, but there has not been solid evidence to show that. Agave is sweeter than regular sugar, so you can use a little less of it to sweeten your coffee or tea, for example. But agave and honey provide more calories per teaspoon than table sugar.

My humble opinion is that our society has increased intake overall and decreased activity overall, and therein lies our biggest problem. Our portion sizes have increased by about 200 percent since the 1970s.

What about noncaloric sweeteners, such as Stevia or Aspartame?

If I were to recommend one of those, I would recommend Stevia. Although it is still processed, it is plant-based. However, I am not the biggest fan of these substitute sweeteners because they give people the feeling that they are consuming something sweet - and the body gets fooled, in effect, into thinking it is getting something sweet - so the person may crave real sweets later and thus consume more calories in the long run.

People might like their diet soda, but how is that helping you in the long run? I would suggest that, in place of that diet soda, have a non-sweetened iced tea or seltzer water - something that does not have any sweeteners in it. I just want people to be aware that there are so many other things they can drink that are just as flavorful and that won't lead them to want more sweets later.

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