Your body doesn’t need to get any carbohydrate from added sugar. That’s why the Healthy Eating Pyramid says sugary drinks and sweets should be used sparingly, if at all, and the Healthy Eating Plate does not include foods with added sugars.
The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which amounts to an extra 350 calories. (27) While we sometimes add sugar to food ourselves, most added sugar comes from processed and prepared foods. Sugar-sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals are two of the most serious offenders.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended that Americans drastically cut back on added sugar to help slow the obesity and heart disease epidemics. (27)
- The AHA suggests an added-sugar limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for most women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.
- There’s no nutritional need or benefit that comes from eating added sugar. A good rule of thumb is to avoid products that have a lot of added sugar, including skipping foods that list “sugar” as the first or second ingredient. However, the growing use of alternative sweeteners can make it difficult to determine which ingredients count as sugar, because there are multiple sources of sugar with different names.
By law, The Nutrition Facts Label must list the grams of sugar in each product. But some foods naturally contain sugar, while others get theirs from added sweeteners.
Soft drinks are a prime source of extra calories that can contribute to weight gain and provide no nutritional benefits. Studies indicate that liquid carbohydrates such as sugar-sweetened beverages are less filling than the solid forms (28)– causing people to continue to feel hungry after drinking them despite their high caloric value. They are coming under scrutiny for their contributions to the development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.
- The average can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch provides about 150 calories, almost all of them from sugar – usually high-fructose corn syrup. That’s the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of table sugar.
- If you were to drink just one can of a sugar-sweetened soft drink every day, and not cut back on calories elsewhere, you could gain up to 15 pounds over three years. (31)
Cereals and other foods
Choosing whole, unprocessed breakfast foods – such as an apple, or a bowl of steel-cut or old fashioned oatmeal – that don’t have lengthy ingredient lists is a great way to avoid eating added sugars. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods such as ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, cereal bars, instant oatmeal with added flavoring, and pastries can contain high amounts of added sugars.
Some ingredient lists mask the amount of sugar in a product. To avoid having “sugar” as the first ingredient, food manufacturers may use multiple forms of sugar– each with a different name – and list each one individually on the nutrient label. By using this tactic, sugars are represented separately in smaller amounts, which makes it more difficult for consumers to determine how much overall sugar is in a product.
- So don’t be fooled – your body metabolizes all added sugars the same way; it doesn’t distinguish between “brown sugar” and “honey.” When reading a label, make sure you spot all sources of added sugars even if they’re not listed as the first few ingredients.
Sweet treats can be enjoyed in moderation, but make sure you’re aware of added sugars elsewhere in your diet, such as breads, drinks and cereals.
Industry-sponsored labeling programs can also be confusing. One such program, called Smart Choices, drew scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2009 for calling one popular cereal —which is 41 percent sugar—a “Smart Choice.” (The Smart Choices program has since been suspended.)
How to spot added sugar on food labels
Spotting added sugar on food labels can require some detective work. Historically, food and beverage manufacturers in the U.S. have been required to list a product’s total amount of sugar per serving on the Nutrition Facts Panel, but they didn’t need to disclose how much of that sugar is added versus naturally occurring. However, this is set to change with the rollout of the updated Panel, which (by 2020 or 2021) will include a line disclosing “added sugars,” along with a corresponding 10 percent-Daily Value—representing a limit of 50 grams (roughly 12 teaspoons) of added sugar towards the daily 2,000 calories recommended for most adults. In the meantime, you’ll need to scan the ingredients list of a food or drink to find the added sugar. (29)
- Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight (30), so where sugar is listed in relation to other ingredients can indicate how much sugar a particular food contains.
- Added sugars go by many different names, yet they are all a source of extra calories.
Food makers can also use sweeteners that aren’t technically sugar—a term which is applied only to table sugar, or sucrose—but these other sweeteners are in fact forms of added sugar. Below are some other names for sugar that you may see on food labels:
|Agave nectar||Evaporated cane juice||Malt syrup|
|Brown sugar||Fructose||Maple syrup|
|Cane crystals||Fruit juice concentrates||Molasses|
|Cane sugar||Glucose||Raw sugar|
|Corn sweetener||High-fructose corn syrup||Sucrose|
|Crystalline fructose||Invert sugar|
27. Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009;120:1011-20.
28. Pan A, Hu FB. Effects of carbohydrates on satiety: differences between liquid and solid food. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2011;14:385-90.
30. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2008. A Food Labeling Guide: Chapter 4:Ingredient Lists. Accessed April 10, 2009.
31. Malik VS, Hu FB. Fructose and Cardiometabolic Health: What the Evidence From Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tells Us. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015 Oct 6;66(14):1615-24
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