For years, we’ve heard the warnings about consuming too much sugar. There’s just one problem: we may not always know when sugar is in the foods and beverages we keep in our home. Reducing the amount of table sugar we sprinkle on our breakfast cereal and other foods is one thing, but knowing where added sugar lurks in our diets is a much harder task.
American adults get about 13 percent of their total daily calories from added sugars. Here’s a look at what they are, where and how to find them, and a few ways you can cut the sugar in your diet.
Sugar comes in many more forms than the granulated white stuff you probably keep in your cupboard. Whether natural or processed, sugar is a carbohydrate that your body uses for energy. Some sugars are found organically in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Added sugars – which simply means sugars that are added to foods as they are being processed or prepared – have a much different effect on the body than natural sugars.
How Added Sugars Harm Your Health
Scientific evidence strongly points to a cause-and-effect between added sugars and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high triglycerides, tooth decay and other health problems. Foods with lots of added sugars contribute extra calories to your diet while providing little to no nutritional value – what we refer to as “empty calories.”
Where Are Added Sugars Found?
It would be a monumental task to list all of the foods and beverages in our modern diets that contain added sugars. According to the American Heart Association, here are some of the top offenders:
- Soft drinks, energy drinks, and sport drinks
- Fruit drinks and some fruit juices
- Baked desserts (such as cakes, cookies, and pies)
- Dairy desserts and sweetened dairy products (such as ice cream, flavored yogurts, and sweetened milks)
- Breakfast foods (such as some cereals, toaster pastries and flavored waffles)
These are just a few examples, so be sure to check nutrition labels for added sugars before you put an item in your grocery cart.
Decoding Nutrition Labels for Added Sugar
It’s no secret that nutrition labels can be confusing to read. When it comes to sugar, the total number of grams in a product doesn’t tell the whole story.
Erica Hechler, MS, RDN, CDE, LD, CCP explains, “the current nutrition label does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars vs. sugars that have been added to the food in processing. It groups them all together as ‘sugars’. This can make it difficult to choose foods that have less ‘added sugars’. The research on sugars and its detrimental effects on health are related to added sugars, as they are an empty source of calories, less on the naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt.”
That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon revise its food labels to include the total grams of added sugars a food product contains. You can also read the product ingredients to find out which types of sugar it contains. Added sugar goes by many different names, based on its form and preparation. These include:
- “-ose” sugars: fructose, glucose, maltose, and dextrose
- High-fructose corn syrup or corn sweeteners
- Cane juice or cane syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate and nectars
- Malt Syrup
People are often surprised that honey, a natural food, is lumped into the list of added sugars. But honey is no better than white sugar and other types of sugar, nutritionally speaking.
How Much Added Sugar is Too Much?
Just about every medical association urges consumers to minimize sugar, but specific recommendations vary. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans sets the limit at 10 percent of your daily calories. (As an example, if you consume a 2,000-calorie daily diet, no more than 200 calories per day should come from added sugars.)
The American Heart Association takes a stricter approach, recommending no more than 100 calories per day of added sugar for most women and no more than 150 calories per day for most men. That breaks down to around six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men. Just think: a 12-ounce soda has about 160 calories or about 10 teaspoons of sugar, which means a single can will put you over the daily intake limit.
“The new food label is going to give us a lot of useful information in the future. It will soon include a section called ‘added sugars’ which will give us information about the amount of sugar, in grams, that was added to the food in processing. If we take a look at this part of the label and aim for less than about 24 grams of added sugar for women and less than 36 grams for men per day we can keep to the above-mentioned guidelines. In general, try to choose foods with the lowest amounts of ‘added sugars’” says, Hechler.
Since sugar is labeled in grams, not teaspoons, here’s a simple trick: four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Take the total grams of sugar and divide it by four to calculate the number of teaspoons contained inside. You just might be shocked by what you find.
Reducing Added Sugar in Your Diet
Ready for some simple ways to cut the sugar in your diet? The next time you go to the grocery store, keeping the following in mind:
- Drink water or other calorie-free drinks (such as home-brewed teas) instead of canned or bottled soft drinks, energy drinks, and sports drinks.
- Read fruit juice labels to make sure there is no added sugar. Or, swap the juice for whole fruit to get even more fiber and nutrients.
- Say no to sugary and frosted breakfast cereals. Opt for lower-sugar options instead.
- Replace sugary syrups, jams, jellies, and preserves with reduced-sugar varieties.
- For dessert, cut back on cakes, cookies, pies and ice cream in favor of naturally sweet fresh fruit.
- Choose canned fruit packed in water or juice rather than syrup.
- At snack time, opt for veggies, fruits, whole-grain crackers and low-fat cheese instead of candies, pastries, and other sweets.