Sugar, Science, and Your Summer BBQ

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With the FDA’s comment period on proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label—including the labeling of added sugar—coming to a close August 1, I find myself reflecting a bit on the sugar many of us have been consuming over the course of the summer picnic season.

Photo: BBQ Junkie via Flickr

Photo: BBQ Junkie via Flickr

Hint: It’s probably more than you think!

Before I get to that, though, I want to underscore the importance of the FDA’s proposed change to label added sugar. Along with more than 275 public health experts, UCS is submitting a joint signed statement to the FDA in support of this important change. With increasing evidence linking the over-consumption of sugar to chronic metabolic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, labeling added sugar will help the public make more informed decisions about what we put in our bodies.

The sugar adds up

Take a simple menu you might pull together for a family backyard cookout:

  Grams of sugar Teaspoons of sugar
BBQ ribs 063 15
Coleslaw 004 01
Potato salad 004 01
Sweet tea 044 10
Total 115 27


The World Health Organization recommends that we consume no more than 10 percent of our daily calories from sugar—that is, 50 grams or about 12 teaspoons. The American Heart Association recommends even less. All of the amounts shown in this table were calculated for single portions from easy recipes on the Food Network website. A teaspoon contains 4.2 grams, and we rounded to the nearest whole number.

This simple meal of summer favorites that does not even include dessert (or bread or cornbread) contains well over a day’s worth of sugar! Even subtracting out the sweet tea, we are left with 71 grams, well above the daily recommended amount. (And vegetarians, we’re not off the hook! Substitute tofu for the ribs in the recipe and it’s still the same BBQ sauce—and the same amount of sugar.)

And the added sugar adds up even more

So … where exactly is all this sugar coming from in a homemade meal? Ketchup is one of those foods that contain a lot of hidden added sugar. No one thinks of it as a particularly sweet food—not like soda or cookies or candy. But one tablespoon—a single serving—of Heinz brand Ketchup contains 4 grams of sugar. This recipe calls for 2 and a half cups of the stuff—on top of which is added a half cup and two tablespoons of brown sugar and some Worcestershire sauce.  That’s for just four servings!

BBQ sauce isn’t the problem

Everyone should be able to enjoy a good family barbeque now and again. The issue isn’t that the BBQ sauce in this recipe has a lot of sugar. If we limited our consumption of excessive sugar to treats and special occasions, we would not be facing the health crisis we are today—with expected life spans for the first time in several generations decreasing rather than increasing.

This cup of Greek Yogurt with sweetened fruit and granola contains 19 grams of sugar. I grabbed it on my way into the office the other day when I'd skipped breakfast at home. I wanted something quick and healthy and my only other choices were pastries with even more sugar. Photo: Deborah Bailin

This cup of Greek Yogurt with sweetened fruit and granola contains 19 grams of sugar. I grabbed it on my way into the office the other day when I’d skipped breakfast at home. I wanted something quick and healthy and my only other choices were pastries with even more sugar. Photo: Deborah Bailin

The real issue is that we are over-consuming sugar at every meal, whether we intend to or not—and that is what is adding up and making us sick.

Why we need added sugars on the Nutrition Facts Label

Every day we are bombarded by food industry disinformation driven by profits. In 2012 alone, the nation’s top 10 food and beverage manufacturers spent more than $6.9 billion to advertise their sugar-heavy brands.

With the exception of the nutrition facts label, food packaging is a landscape of misleading words, numbers, and images aimed at persuading rather than informing. The actual sugar content of an ordinary box of cereal, for example, is often masked by disingenuous claims about fiber and protein cloaked in emotional ploys targeting children and their parents, who want to feel good about what they’re buying.

Voluntary labeling by food and beverage manufacturers, such as the Facts Up Front initiative developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is an insufficient substitute for the FDA’s proposed changes. Food companies generally use voluntary labels inconsistently and surround them with messaging that overemphasizes healthy ingredients, such as protein or fiber, to obscure excessive added sugar.

Moreover, sugar interests’ attempts to “bury the data” linking sugar to chronic metabolic disease and obstruct policies addressing sugar-related health concerns demand action.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Science and Democracy Tags: , ,

About the author: Deborah Bailin is a democracy analyst for UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy and researches political and societal barriers to formulating science-based policies. She came to UCS in 2012 as an ACLS Public Fellow and holds a PhD in English from the University of Maryland, where she studied the cultural influence of Darwin on American literature. Subscribe to Deborah's posts

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