The Shocking Truth About How Much Sugar You’re Eating

Sugar is a naturally occurring component of many food groups, including all sources of carbohydrates whether they’re starches (read: bread, pasta, grains), dairy, fruits, vegetables, or fruit and vegetable juices. Added sugars, on the other hand, top the list of foods to avoid as sugar has been linked with a number of health ailments including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, and dental cavities.

Honestly, the list of problems being associated with eating too much sugar could go on. And while I don’t want to bore you, I do want to scare you (if but a little bit) because this is a serious issue and let’s face it, many people really love sweets!

Sugar intakes are particularly high among children, adolescents, and young adults and, unfortunately, growing up as a child who consumes too much sugar can set a lifestyle pattern that must be broken to avoid becoming an adult who also consumes too much sugar.

While many authoritative groups agree that added sugars need to be reduced, it is also clear that this reduction should be paired with an overall reduction of calories and a healthful lifestyle.

How much added sugar is too much? 

Both the World Health Organization and the United States Department of Agriculture recommend a maximum limit of less than 10 percent of total calories from added sugars daily. For the average diet of 2,000 calories per day, this would amount to fewer than 200 calories or 50 grams of total Added Sugars. For someone following a keto type diet, total carbohydrates are limited to 5-10% of calories and foods with added sugars are prohibited.

Your sugary truth 

A survey of what Americans are eating estimates that on average, almost 270 calories – the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar –  and more than 13 percent of calories each day, come from added sugars. This is rather sad considering this large percentage of intake offers no real nourishment other than empty calories.

Chart showing recommended sugar consumption vs. actual consumption. Most Americans consume about 17 teaspoons of sugar. However, it's recommended eat no more than 9 teaspoons and women eat no more than 6 teaspoons

Sources: What We Eat in America, NHANES 2007-2010 for average intakes by age-sex groupUSDA 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The biggest culprit – nearly half of our sugar intake -- is sweetened beverages like sodas and soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened coffees and teas, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages, and flavored waters. The rest comes from a long list of processed snacks, cakes, sweets, desserts and condiments. 

pie chart that shows the percentage of added sugars in the diet of the U.S. population ages 2 years and older that comes from different food categories:  Beverages (not milk or 100% fruit juice) 47%;  Snacks & Sweets 31%;  Grains 8%;  Mixed Dishes 6%;  Dairy 4%;  Condiments, Gravies, Spreads, Salad Dressings 2%;  Vegetables 1%;  Fruits & Fruit Juice 1%;  Protein Foods: 0%.  An inset bar chart expands the Beverages (not milk or 100% fruit juice) category to depict the percentage of added sugars in the diet from different types of beverages:  Soft Drinks 25%;  Fruit Drinks 11%;  Coffee & Tea 7%;  Sport & Energy Drinks 3%;  Alcoholic Beverages 1%.  Together, Soft Drinks, Fruit Drinks, and Sport & Energy Drinks are called Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, which comprise 39% of added sugars.

Source: What We Eat in America (WWEIA) Food Category analyses for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Estimates based on day 1 dietary recalls from WWEIA, NHANES 2009-2010.

Identifying added sugar in your diet 

Thanks to a relatively new update on the Nutrition Facts Panel, identifying grams of Added Sugars is easier than ever before. Added sugars are now listed as their own line item in the Total Carbohydrate section under Total Sugars. This allows you to truly see how much sugar is added versus naturally occurring. 

Graphic showing where to find added sugars on a nutrition label. It's listed in the total carbohydrate section as its own line item separate from total sugars.

When reviewing the Ingredients panel on packaged foods and beverages, it is important to recognize the many different terms that also indicate a sugary ingredient such as: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, agave, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose and turbinado sugar. 

You’ll likely find sugars in places you wouldn’t expect, for example: 

  • Jarred tomato sauce: tomato puree (water, tomato paste), vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: soybean oil, corn oil), high fructose corn syrup, salt, dried onions, extra virgin olive oil, romano cheese (cow's milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), spices, natural flavor.
  • Ketchup: tomato concentrate from red ripe tomatoes, distilled vinegar, cane sugar, salt, onion powder, spice, natural flavoring.
  • Peanut butter: roasted peanuts and sugar, molasses, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (rapeseed and soybean), mono and diglycerides, salt

Sugar-related front of pack claims

There are many ways that food companies are trying to support the need for people to consume less sugar. Here are some common label statements and what they might mean for you. 

1. Reduced sugar/Less sugar 

This may be the sign of an improvement, but all that it really means is that this product has less sugar than the previous version of itself, so it may still have more than you should be consuming. Always check the Nutrition Facts and serving size to make a decision for yourself.  

2. No Added Sugar

 In light of all I’ve just shared with you about avoiding added sugars, this is a handy statement for keto dieters to be aware of. 
Sweet recipes that have “no sugar added” generally do contain some other source of sweetness:
  • Artificial sweeteners include those familiar yellow, pink and green packet-type ingredients such as: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and sucralose.
  • Sugar alcohols are generally from a natural source which is altered chemically so that they aren’t absorbed in the body -- meaning no calories or sugar absorption. They usual end in “-ol” and some examples are sorbitol, erythritol, mannitol, xylitol.
  • Natural non-caloric sweeteners, such as seen on the package below, include those such as stevia and monk fruit extract, both of which are keto-friendly.

      3. Lower Net Carbs

      This term is an estimate of the carbohydrate you might actually absorb from a particular food. Foods that have high fiber content, for example, have greater likelihood of passing through the digestive system undigested, and therefore unabsorbed, so the Net Carb intake represents only the amount you do absorb. The same applies to foods with sugar alcohol content. So, Net Carbs are calculated as total carbohydrate per serving, minus fiber, minus sugar alcohols. 

      4. Organic

      Organic foods are certifiably grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. While this means it may be a healthier choice, it has nothing to do with the product’s sugar content. Be sure to read labels for Added Sugars, even if you think the organic term implies “healthy”.

      Summing up the task of reducing sugar 

      Reducing or eliminating added sugar can make dramatic improvements in a person’s health. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably already know your own personal downfalls such as the office candy bowl or leftover birthday cake, but the most obvious place for most Americans to begin cutting back, is with beverages. For starters, back-off of sodas and sweetened beverages; prepare coffees and teas without sugar and whipped and syrupy toppings; next, read labels, control portion sizes – and document your sugary truth – and you’ll be on your way to putting your own personal sugar affairs in order. 

      Once you get started, we’d love to hear about your personal journey to eating foods without added sugar and any additional tips you might have for our readers! 

      Infrographic recaps the chart earlier in the blog post which showed recommendations for added sugar intakes being less than 10%. Below it, are tips for how to cut back on added sugars. 1. Read nutrition labels 2. Enhance foods with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, mint or ginger. 3. Enjoy fruit for dessert and remove added sugars from your diet. 4. Stick to sugar-free beverages like plain and sparkling water, unsweetened tea and black coffee.

      Sources

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