Plus tips on what to look for and how to cut back.

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Every five years, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) comes out with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The focus of the report is to give recommendations on a healthy eating pattern that would prevent chronic illness. However, the lengthy report contains much more than just how many servings of fruits and vegetables you need. The most recent 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines suggest that less than 10% of daily calories come from added sources of sugar. The American Heart Association goes even further and recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar for women, and no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men daily.

So how much is that really? And where should you start when thinking about cutting back? Not all sugars are digested in the same way, which makes it a complicated nutrient to talk about. Naturally occurring sugar in fruit and dairy is digested more slowly (because it's packaged with fiber and protein, which slow absorption) and is different from the simple sugars added to foods. However, there are sneaky sources of added sugar beyond sweets and treats.  Here, we looked into the Dietary Guidelines recommendation for added sugar, the most common sources and alternatives to help you cut back. 

Pouring cola over ice cube in clear glass with straw.
Credit: Getty Images / Theerawan Bangpran

Top 7 Sources of Added Sugar In Our Diets

The recommendation of less than 10% of calories from added sugar might be hard to picture. On a 2,000 calorie diet, that amounts to 200 calories per day, which equals roughly 50 grams or 12.5 teaspoons of sugar per day. They found the current average intake is closer to 266 calories per day, which is 66.5 grams or 16 teaspoons. Per the USDA, these are the top added sugar contributors in our diet. Learn what they are, as well as ways you can cut back. 

1. Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

This is probably not a surprise, but sugar-sweetened beverages make up roughly 24% of people's added sugar consumption. This is mostly from soft drinks, but also includes sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks (that are not 100% juice). Beyond soda, many alcoholic drinks and cocktails also pack on the sweeteners, too. 

Luckily for us, there are plenty of ways to have a flavorful, refreshing drink without the added sugar or calories. If you love the bubbles in soda, try drinking a seltzer instead. You can add frozen fruit or a splash of fruit juice for extra flavor. Infusing waters is another great way to add flavor without sugar or calories. Drinks like tea and coffee are also naturally sugar-free. Making them at home instead of ordering out allows you to control how much sweetener you add, if any. 

2. Desserts & Sweet Snacks 

The next highest category of added sugar intake is from desserts and sweet snacks, clocking in at 19% of the average intake. This includes cookies, brownies, ice cream, cakes, pies, pastries and more. But following the Dietary Guidelines recommendations doesn't have to mean skipping dessert. 

We have dessert ideas with no added sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth. Also try turning to fruit for an added-sugar-free treat. Portions are also important to consider when having dessert. You can enjoy a cookie, brownie or scoop of ice cream, but try a smaller portion you can really savor. When buying treats from the store, check the label. 4g of added sugars is about one teaspoon. 

3. Coffee & Tea 

Even though coffee and tea are naturally sugar-free, they make up for 11% of the average added sugar intake. This is likely from ordering cafe drinks with flavored syrups, sugar and sweetened creams. One easy way to cut down on the added sugar in your morning beverage of choice is to make it at home. This way you can add your own sugar, syrup or cream to help control your intake compared to what you order out. For extra flavor, try this dietitian-approved hack that makes coffee taste way better

4. Candy & Sugars 

Nine percent of added sugar intake comes from candy and sugars. Though it might sound good in the moment, simple sugars and candy spike our blood sugar only to have it crash shortly afterwards, leaving us feeling more hungry and craving more sweets. Instead, try one of these recipes for healthy blood sugar so you can stay satisfied for longer. 

5. Breakfast Cereals & Bars 

Seven percent of added sugar intake comes from breakfast cereals and bars. Though this might feel like a healthy food, not all cereals are created the same and it is important to know what to look for. Be sure to read the label when choosing cereals or breakfast bars. A breakfast that keeps you full should have fiber, aim for three or more grams per serving. Also, try to keep added sugars below seven grams (about 2 teaspoons) per serving. You can also make your own granola, cereals and breakfast bars to help control the sweetness. 

6. Sandwiches 

One of the more surprising sources of added sugar is from sandwiches, which account for about 7% of the average intake. The issue is likely not with sandwiches, but rather what people use to make their sandwiches. Processed cheese, processed meats, processed white bread and condiments are all sneaky sources of added sugar. Instead, opt for whole grain bread (and check the nutrition info for added sugar), vegetables, unprocessed cheeses and meats and spreads like hummus or whipped feta dip that have little to no added sugar. 

7. Milk & Yogurt 

Four percent of added sugar intake comes from milk and yogurt. These are super healthy foods, but buying pre-flavored products can pack on the added sugar. Instead, buy plain yogurts and add fruit or a little honey to sweeten on your own. Plant-based milks can also be flavored or have sneaky added sugar to enhance their taste. Be sure to check the labels and buy unsweetened versions when you can. 

Bottom Line 

Not all sugar is inherently bad. In fact, foods like fruit, dairy products and more have natural sugars that do not need to be cut out of your diet. However, foods like sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts and even processed sandwiches all contribute to the higher-than-recommended average sugar intake of Americans. There are several simple tips that can help you meet the Dietary Guidelines recommendation of less than 10% of calories from added sugar. For more, check out our No-Sugar-Added Meal Plan.