Sugar consumption is included in almost any discussion about diet and the normal recommendation is to limit your intake. After all, sugar is just empty calories, which is true for the most part. However, there is a bit more to the topic of sugar than just “avoid when possible” and it’s an interesting subject to explore. Let’s dive in and see what there is to learn, shall we?
How Many Grams of Sugar Should You Eat Per Day?
A good starting point is with the recommended daily sugar intake. According to the American Heart Association, men should have a maximum of 150 calories each day from added sugars (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons) and women should have a maximum of 100 calories (25 grams or 6 teaspoons). The key word here is maximum, which is different than nutrient daily recommendations, since those values are what people should aim for. With sugar, the listed value is what you should avoid approaching when possible.
The listed values for sugar are also targeted to the average adult. If you are overweight, have a condition like diabetes, or other health concerns, the number may rise or fall and you should consult with your doctor on dietary guidance.
Added and Natural Sugars
You may have noticed that the recommendations specifically talk about “added” sugars. This is an important distinction since sugar is plentiful, but it also isn’t always interchangeable. Fortunately, the distinction is largely self-explanatory.
A “natural sugar” is any sugar that is normally found within a given food. Fructose is a natural sugar in fruit, lactose is a natural sugar in milk, and so on. Basically, if the sugar would still be there even if you got it directly from the source without preparation, then it can be considered natural. Natural sugars are largely unavoidable in order to get proper nutrition, and their intake is inconsequential for most people baring certain medical conditions.
An added sugar is, as the name suggests, any sugar that is added to a food by people. This applies to sugars that are added during manufacturing, like high fructose corn syrup, and to any sugars or sweeteners that you yourself add, like when preparing your morning coffee.
Added sugars do have useful purposes. Sugar is, after all, sweet and tastes good, and we are biologically inclined to like it. Using a little bit of sugar to improve the taste of a food can make it more enjoyable to take healthier options. The problem comes when this is taken too far, as is the case with most commercially available products. The American diet is, simply put, saturated with sugar. As of 2008, people in the United States were consuming about 76.7 grams of added sugar per day, equating 19 teaspoons or 306 calories—over twice the recommended maximum.
Top Sources of Added Sugar
The largest sources of added sugar in the American diet are, in descending order:
6.Low-Fat or Diet Foods
Number six is one that tends to surprise a lot of people, since it is common to equate “low-fat” foods with “healthy,” but the link isn’t always that clear. Many foods with removed fat, such as low-fat flavored yogurt, cereals, salad dressing, and cookies, make use of higher levels of added sugar. The reason is usually because removing fat from a food affects the taste and the sugar is used to make it more appealing to consumers. As mentioned above, this is not necessarily a bad thing but ends up getting taken too far.
Managing Sugar from Processed Food
The most basic way to avoid many pitfalls of added sugar is to simply not eat processed foods, or to only do so rarely. However, not everyone can do this. Processed food is easily affordable and convenient, and people can lack the flexibility in their life to rely more heavily on other sources of meals. Here are a few tips that can help you keep your sugar intake down when buying processed foods.
It is common to see products labeled as having “reduced sugar” or being “sugar free.” These terms have specific meanings that can differ from what a casual reader would assume. Knowing what the label is saying is a good step towards making informed purchases.
- No Added Sugar or Without Added Sugars: No sugars or ingredients that contain sugars (juices, fruits, etc.) were added during processing.
- Reduced Sugar or Less Sugar: The food contains at least 25% less sugar than a standard serving of the traditional version. Reduced sugar products can still have excessive levels, so pay extra attention when you see this label
- Low Sugar: This phrase has no assigned meaning and is actually prohibited as a food label claim, but some companies try and find ways to weasel it in indirectly
Read the Label
It really can’t be stressed enough that reading the nutrition label is important when deciding what foods to buy. This helps you not only learn about the sugar content, but also nutrients, fats, and carbohydrates. Also, be aware of the ingredient list. Here are a few pointers for when looking at these pieces of information:
- Ingredients are listed in order of prevalence. If a sugar appears in the first three, avoid the product if possible
- Sugar comes in different names such as sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, dehydrated cane juice, glucose, dextrose, syrup, cane sugar, raw sugar, etc.
- Some labels try and make their added sugar sound healthy by referring to it as things like agave, honey, organic cane sugar, or coconut sugar. This does not impact how your body processes added sugar so the name is irrelevant
- Nutrition labels don’t distinguish between added and natural sugar, so any product with dairy or fruit in it will list at least some sugar content
- There are roughly four calories in a gram of sugar, so you can use multiplication to determine the caloric impact of a serving
- Nutrition labels list content per serving. Pay attention to the serving size and make sure it’s not smaller than what you would eat in one sitting