By Dr. Chris Cifelli, Vice President of Nutrition Research, National Dairy Council, Rosemont IL, USA
What about added sugar in fermented or probiotic foods? I am almost always asked this question whenever I give a nutrition presentation, no matter the audience. It’s not a surprising question as people care about what they eat and, often, are looking for ways to reduce their intake of sugar. Yet, if someone wants to add fermented or probiotic foods such as yogurt, kefir or kombucha to their diet, they often find the products available to them contain sugar as an added ingredient.
Should these products be part of you and your family’s healthy eating plan even if they have added sugar? The simple answer – yes, they likely can still fit into a healthy eating plan.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ‘added sugars’ are defined as sugars that are either added during the processing of foods or are packaged separately as sugars (e.g. the bag of sugar you buy to make your treats). Added sugars in the diet have received attention because of their link to obesity and chronic disease risk. The World Health Organization, American Heart Association, Dietary Guidelines for America, and American Diabetes Association all recommend reducing added sugar intake to improve overall health. While data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has shown that consumption of added sugar decreased from the 2007-2010 to the 2013-2017 surveys, the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report noted that the mean usual consumption of added sugars was still 13% of daily energy in 2015-16, which exceeds recommendations of 10%.
Including fermented foods in one’s diet may be important for overall health. The recent ISAPP consensus paper on fermented foods indicated that fermented foods, especially the live microbes contained in them, could benefit health in numerous ways, such as by beneficially modulating the gut microbiota or the immune system. Similarly, foods with added probiotics may confer health benefits ranging from impacting digestive health to metabolic parameters, depending on the probiotic contained in the product. Our understanding of the gut microbiota continues to evolve, but one thing is for certain: it is important for health. This provides a compelling reason to find ways to include these foods in healthy eating patterns.
So, back to the question at hand. Should you reduce or eliminate fermented foods and foods with probiotics from your diet if they have added sugars? Just like a “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” a little added sugar to improve the palatability of nutrient-dense foods is okay. Indeed, government and health organizations all agree that people can eat some sugar within the daily recommendations (which is 10% of total daily calories), especially in foods like yogurt or whole-grain cereals, or other healthy foods. And, there is no scientific evidence to show that the sugar in these products reduces the health benefits associated with eating foods like yogurt or probiotics. Human studies assessing health benefits of probiotic foods typically use products with added sugar, yet health effects are still observed.
The next time you are out shopping you can choose your favorite fermented or probiotic-containing food guilt free, as long as you’re watching your overall daily intake of sugar. But, if are you are still concerned, then choose plain varieties to control your own level of sweetness or you could opt for a probiotic supplement to avoid the sugar. Whether you go with the sweetened or unsweetened version of your favorite fermented food, you’ll not only get the benefit of the live microbes in these products but also the nutritional benefit that comes with foods like yogurt.