Image: Getty Images / Larry Washburn
Aah, sugar—the sweet stuff we all love to eat. Brownies, cookies, candy and ice cream just wouldn't be the same. But how much sugar should we eat a day? The truth is, most of us eat too much sugar. So how can you balance your sweet tooth with your health? Read on to find out more about sugar including sources of added sugar, how much is considered healthy and what happens when you eat more than you should.
Sugars are carbohydrates, and they're the body's preferred source of energy. There are many types of sugars. Fructose and glucose are two simple sugars (also called monosaccharides) that are well-known. Sucrose, which is table sugar, consists of equal parts fructose and glucose, making it a disaccharide. Lactose, the sugar that naturally occurs in milk, is made up of equal parts glucose and galactose. When you eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into glucose, which is used for energy.
Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and dairy contain natural sugars. Fructose, glucose and lactose are inherently part of these foods. No processing has been done to add sugar. Sugar also occurs naturally in sugarcane and sugar beets in the form of sucrose. However, these are processed to make white sugar, which can then be added to processed foods or to drinks like coffee, in which cases it's considered added sugar. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is another sugar that can be made from corn. While sucrose is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, HFCS is usually 55% fructose and 45% glucose and is added to many processed foods, making it an added sugar.
Honey, maple syrup and agave are natural sugars—they come from plants—but when added to foods, they are considered added sugar. Sugar can also be processed and added to foods under various names including invert sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, molasses, brown sugar, brown rice syrup and more (learn all about the 56+ names of sugar here).
The main sources of added sugars in the American diet are desserts, soft drinks, juices, sweetened dairy products like flavored milks, yogurts, and ice cream, and sweetened refined grain products like sugary cereals.
There is no recommendation for a total amount of sugar to stay under per day, but there is a recommendation for added sugar. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10 percent per day. That's 12 teaspoons or 48 grams of sugar if following a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has stricter limits and recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of added sugar per day and men stay under 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of added sugar per day.
While you might not be eating dessert every day, keep in mind, for example, that a large vanilla latte can have 50 grams or more of added sugar, and what appears to be a healthy yogurt parfait or green juice can also put you over the daily limit. Learn more about sneaky sources of added sugar.
Right now it's not easy to tell. But that's changing in 2020 when the FDA will mandate that food companies add a line for added sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel. Some labels have already adopted this change, so you may see "Includes X grams of added sugar" under "Sugars" on the panel. Therefore, if a food has 10 grams of sugar and says, "includes 8 grams of added sugars" then you know that only 2 grams of sugar in the product are naturally occurring.
Check the ingredients list too. A dried fruit product, for example, may say "mangoes, sugar," so you know some of the sugar is coming naturally from the mango but the rest is added. If the ingredients list only says, "mangoes," you know that all the sugar in the dried mangoes is naturally occurring and none has been added.
A good rule of thumb is that fruits, vegetables and plain dairy products all contain natural sugar. Anything else is probably added.
The AHA's recommendation for added sugar "is no different for people with diabetes," says Molly Cleary, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator based in New York City. "Almost everyone would benefit from limiting added sugar intake, including those with diabetes; however, small amounts of added sugar can be worked into a balanced diet," she says.
The thought that sugar causes diabetes is a myth, according to the American Diabetes Association. However, excess sugar can lead to weight gain which in turn increases your risk of type 2 diabetes. Drinking too many sugary beverages has also been linked to type 2 diabetes.
If you do drink soda, sweet tea or other sweetened beverages regularly, it's a good idea to cut back. Try using less sugar in your tea and coffee, drinking unsweetened flavored seltzers or adding herbs and fruits (think mint, strawberry or lemon) to your water to make it more exciting.
"The problem with sugar and weight loss [for many] isn't candy, soda and cookies," says Megan Kober, RD, a registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition Addiction. "The problem is juice bars, smoothies made with 2 cups of fruit, acai bowls—these foods that people are loading up on for weight loss and health that have 40, 50, even 60 grams of sugar a pop."
"Honey, agave, coconut sugar—it's all sugar," she says. "It all causes a blood sugar spike. It all causes a rush of insulin to be released. It all puts your body into fat-storage mode."
Kober's thoughts on how much sugar to stay under to lose weight? "Are you really going to tally up how much sugar you're eating all day long, added sugar versus natural sugar? No. I doubt it," she says. Instead, "Eat one or two servings of fruit every day. Choose berries more often, because they're high in fiber and lower in sugar than other fruit." And, she says, "At any single meal, you really shouldn't be consuming more than 10-15 grams of sugar at once if you want to keep your blood sugar steady and body in a fat-burning zone."
While the body needs sugar for energy, too much is detrimental to your overall health. On average, U.S. adults are consuming far too much added sugar. The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, or 68 grams. Extra sugar is stored as fat, which leads to weight gain, a risk factor for many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Studies link eating too much sugar to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A high intake of refined carbohydrates (including sugar, white flour, etc.) has also been linked to metabolic syndrome, which is marked by myriad conditions including obesity, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol levels. Further, the USDA cites evidence that a diet low in overall added sugar is associated with reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Simply put, added sugar contributes zero nutrients but 4 calories per 1 gram. Over time, these "empty calories" add up and are inevitably stored as fat, leading to weight gain and increased risk of many chronic diseases.
Sugar is often demonized but, remember, it's the body's preferred energy source and adds flavor to food. Don't stress over every bite of sugar, especially sugar from whole foods like fruits and vegetables. But keep an eye on added sugar, which can sneak into seemingly healthy foods, has no nutritional value and is stored as fat if consumed in excess. Too much sugar over time increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cancer.