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Sweet and toxic: Is sugar really 'poison'?

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About 16 percent of the total calories in American diets comes from added sugar.

By Elisa Zied, R.D.

How could something so sweet be so bad for you? That’s exactly the point.

Sugar in all forms -- from the refined stuff in the bowl on your table to honey and high fructose corn syrup -- is a key contributor to many of our diet-related diseases and conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer, according to Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

In an interview Sunday withDr. Sanjay Gupta on "60 Minutes", childhood obesity expert Lustig cited sugar as the source of an American public health crisis. While Americans' sugar intake has declined significantly since the 1970s, our diets are now filled with processed foods containing the artificial sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, the show reported. "The problem is they're both bad. They're both equally toxic," Lustig told "60 Minutes."

According to recent estimates, about 16 percent of the total calories in American diets comes from added sugar -- mostly in the form of soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks, grain-based desserts like cakes and cookies, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, ice cream and other dairy desserts and candy. These highly palatable foods and beverages contribute a lot of calories with few nutrients, and crowd out healthful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and the nutrients those foods provide.

But not all experts believe sugar alone is the dietary devil.

"It's important to highlight that we get ourselves into trouble whenever we focus on one dietary attribute exclusively and ignore all the rest," says nutrition scientist Dr. David Katz, the well-regarded founding director of Yale University Prevention Research Center. Although Katz agrees that an excess of sugar -- fructose or any other form -- is harmful and that it’s wise to limit it in the diet, he adds, “It's not sugar that's the poison, but the dose that makes the poison.”

Currently, the American Heart Association recommends up to 100 calories (25 grams) per day of added sugar for women, and 150 calories (about 38 grams) for men. That’s much less than you might think: 100 calories of added sugar is found in 1/2 cup chocolate ice cream (56 calories) plus one cup of low fat chocolate milk (45 calories). One can of regular soda contains 126 calories from added sugars.

Despite emerging evidence that links high added sugar intake with chronic health problems, until we know more, it doesn't help to completely eliminate sugar if other areas of our diet are lacking. Or as Katz explains, "When we focus on just one nutrient -- however important it is -- we tend to lose the forest for the trees. The food industry will be happy to give [us] whole new cart-loads of 'low sugar,' artificially sweetened junk food. It will be low in sugar, but will still be junk food."

There are easy ways to lower your daily added sugar load:

Sidestep soda. Instead of grabbing for a sugary drink, hydrate with club soda, seltzer, plain or sparkling water, or unsweetened iced tea -- all of these can be sweetened naturally with some fresh fruit or veggie slices or a splash of 100 percent fruit juice.

Look past the lump. Sugar grams listed on Nutrition Facts panels on packaged and processed foods and beverages lump naturally occurring sugars -- lactose in milk and fructose in fruit -- and added sugars together. Until that changes, rely on ingredients lists to know whether the product you are purchasing contains added sugars.

Learn the lingo on labels. Although it’s no surprise that baked goods, dairy products like flavored milk and yogurt, salad dressings, sauces, and condiments have added sugar, some sources like whole wheat bread, peanut butter, and crackers may seem less obvious. Look for the following terms on ingredients lists—they all spell sugar: high fructose corn syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, raw sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, pancake syrup, fructose sweetener, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose and crystal dextrose.

Find your sweet spot. Before you reach for dessert, have some fresh or frozen fruit or some unsweetened low-fat milk or yogurt to fill you up before you dig in. Choose only the sweets you love most, and stick to a small portion, such as a few bites of cake or ice cream, one small cookie, or small square of chocolate. If you go overboard on added sugars, know that you’re human; cut calories elsewhere that day and try to avoid a sweet attack the next day.

To find out how much added sugar is in your favorite foods, you can check out the U.S Department of Agriculture's Food-A-Pedia at https://www.choosemyplate.gov/SuperTracker/foodapedia.aspx

Related:

Soda-drinking men at higher risk of heart attack

5 great reasons to kick your soda habit

Poison centers warn about the cinnamon challenge 

Also by Elisa Zied:

How to enjoy your daily meat without killing yourself

Elisa Zied is a New York registered dietitian and contributor to msnbc.com. To follow, pin, like, or learn more about Elisa, visit www.elisazied.com