Sugar sense: How to make smarter beverage choices


by Jessica Chen, CDE, RD, MCN

Mar 28, 2018

Every day, Americans get almost half of their added sugar consumption from drinks. And although recent USDA surveys show that we are drinking less soda, consumption of mid-calorie drinks like tea or vitamin water is actually on the rise.

Sweetened drinks can add many “empty calories” that give us few of the nutrients we need. Studies have also shown that frequently choosing sweetened drinks is linked to both weight gain and higher risk for developing serious health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver disease.

As a registered dietitian, I’m here to offer insight on ways to avoid added sugars and how you can make smarter, healthier decisions the next time you reach for a sweetened drink.

Looking at the label

The next time you’re at the grocery store or buying food online, don’t overlook the nutrition label. The ingredients on the nutrition label can show you if a drink has any added sugar or artificial ingredients.

Below is a list of some common names for added sugars that you should be aware of:

  • evaporated cane juice
  • fruit juice concentrates
  • agave
  • honey
  • invert sugar
  • raw sugar
  • turbinado sugar
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • fructose

Common culprits

The American Heart Association recommends that we keep the added sugars from all of our food and drinks to less than 6-9 teaspoons a day. Be aware, though, many popular drinks will quickly add more sugar and calories than most of us can spare.

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS), National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

Smart swaps

Try these tips, below, for ways to cut down on the sugar you get from drinks.

  • Choose unsweetened drinks like water, plain teas or sparkling waters.
  • Try making a flavorful infused water or tea by adding fruit such as lemon, lime, cucumber or watermelon, and include herbs like mint or basil, or spices like cinnamon or vanilla.
  • At the coffee shop, consider swapping the sweet coffee creamer, flavored syrup and whipped cream for a low-fat milk or almond milk.
  • If you do choose to have a sweetened drink, choose the smallest size. Most soda companies offer an 8-ounce can.
  • Ask for your smoothie to be made without any syrups or juices. The blended fruit gives you sweetness and flavor but it will also have important nutrients like fiber and vitamins.

So, the next time you reach for a sweetened drink, consider these healthier alternatives instead — your body will be glad you did!

Sources: 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans; CDC Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption; CDC Rethink Your Drink 2015; American Heart Association Decreasing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption: Policy Approaches to Address Obesity 2015

About the Author

Jessica Chen is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes instructor on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Round Rock. Although she works with a variety of conditions, diabetes is her area of expertise. She sees patients for individualized nutrition counseling and teaches Diabetes Bootcamp classes. She also provides training on insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors. She enjoys demystifying confusing medical and nutrition information so that her patients are empowered to make meaningful, positive changes to improve their health.

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