What’s Sugar Doing In My Nutrition Bar?

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March is National Nutrition Month, and we’d like to take the opportunity to open a discussion on sugar – a hot topic. This is the first in a series of posts in March concerning sugar, carbohydrates, and blood sugar. Feel free to comment and get the discussion going!

Sugar is found in many forms – photo credits nadmental & vjeran2001

What’s sugar doing in my nutrition bar? We’ve received all kinds of questions about the sugar content in Zing bars. Some of you wonder why it’s in our bars, and how much sugar is too much? We’re glad you asked! As nutritionists, we always love the opportunity to dig into the topic of sugar. That little number on the nutrition facts panel is the source of so much confusion, in part because the term “sugar” brings up images of all sorts of unhealthy foods such as candy and soda. However, not all sugars are created equal. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, and lends a sweet taste to foods such as fruits, milk products, and sweet desserts. These sugars are known as “simple” because their chemical structures are small in size and are easily and quickly absorbed in our digestive tract. Complex carbohydrates better known as starch are larger chemical structures that our body must first break down in order to absorb them as sugar. In the end, all carbohydrate foods turn into sugar. Those sugars are our body’s main source of fuel. So, that hardcore yoga routine you did last Saturday? Without those sugars your downward dogs would have turned to into belly flops. Our muscles need sugar to perform, as does the brain which uses glucose (the form of sugar found in the bloodstream) as a primary form of fuel. We can all think of a time when low blood sugar resulted in foggy thinking and irritability. We all want to feel and perform at our best throughout the day, which begs the question, “What types of carbohydrate will give me sustained energy?” Unless you’re training for a marathon, I advise people to think “slow” when it comes to carbs. Slow carbs are whole-foods sources of complex carbohydrate such as oats, legumes, quinoa, brown rice, yams and other starchy foods with their natural fiber intact. The fiber slows down your digestion, and the complex carbs are broken down more slowly in the gut than most simple carbs. Think of these as “time-release” carbohydrates! Now, you might think that this would leave simple sugars in the fast lane – but not so fast. Most sugars are absorbed quickly, but not a type of sugar called fructose. Fructose, found in agave nectar and all fruits, is a special kind of sugar. This sugar is absorbed in the digestive tract like all other sugars, but must go to the liver first before it is metabolized and burned for energy. As a result, your blood sugar doesn’t spike (like after having a sugary soda) and you get long-lasting energy, avoiding the dreaded “sugar crash” which leaves you craving more sugar. Small amounts of fructose are fine for the body to handle, and one Zing bar has the same amount of fructose as that found in a small apple. Fructose has gotten some bad press, but keep in mind that fructose only becomes problematic when we ingest very large amounts, such as with diets loaded with sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup – essentially the standard American diet. What else helps to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream? Fiber and fat. Both slow stomach emptying, so the sugar’s digestion and metabolism are further prolonged, giving you the feeling of satiety and lasting energy. I advise my patients to aim for 15-30 grams of total carbohydrate per snack, and to assure that the majority of this carbohydrate is slow burning. It’s no accident that Zing bars were created with 21 to 27 grams carbohydrate per bar. With their heart-healthy fats, satisfying protein and fiber, they are truly the perfect snack, giving you the “slow burn” energy you need to last through a busy work day. Another common snack that fits this perfect combination is an apple (carbohydrate + fiber) with a few tablespoons of peanut butter (healthy fat + protein). The American Heart Association recommends that we limit added sugars to 25 and 38 grams per day for women and men, respectively. This isn’t much compared to what Americans are eating now, which is a whopping 92 grams (22 teaspoons!) daily. The amount of sugars listed on the nutrition facts panel for Zing bars range 11-15 grams. It’s important to look at this number within context – the majority of these sugars are “slow burn” and, paired with good fats and fiber, won’t leave you crashing and craving more sweets. The questions to ask yourself when thinking about sugars: Are the sugars fast or slow burn? Are the sugars paired with protein, fat and fiber? The amount of sugar in grams on a package should always be taken in context. Christine Weiss MS, RD is a dietitian and Bastyr University graduate who counsels people dealing with food allergies, diabetes and digestive issues. She enjoys working with Zing Bars to raise awareness about healthy living through online media. She can be found at Eating It Up online.