by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article explaining how eating too much sugar affects your body. As a guideline, I suggested trying to limit your intake of added sugar to 50 grams a day. Since then, I’ve got a lot of questions from readers about how to implement this guideline. So, today, a follow-up to my original article, with answers to your questions about limiting added sugars.
Why Should You Limit Added Sugar?
As I explained in my original article, although a little bit of sugar is OK for most people, eating too much sugar can undermine your health in a lot of ways. Sugar can add excess calories to your diet, crowd out more nutritious foods, and otherwise contribute to aging, weight gain, and disease.
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
The World Health Organization recommends that you limit your intake of added sugar to 50 grams a day, and this was the guideline that I mentioned in my original article. For the average adult, fifty grams of sugar works out to about 10% of their total calorie intake.
Some people would set that limit a lot lower—in fact, the American Heart Association recommends just 25 grams of added sugar a day.
Of course, you could try to eliminate 100% of the added sugar from your diet. But that strikes me as unnecessarily austere. If you’re basically healthy and you have a reasonably nutritious diet and active lifestyle, I don’t think a zero tolerance policy is necessary.
Honestly, because so many of today’s health problems stem directly from excess sugar consumption, I think any reduction would be a step in the right direction. And because the typical American is currently consuming about 100 grams of added sugar a day, cutting that intake in half seems like a good place to start.
What Counts as an “Added Sugar”?
Whether your goal is to eat only 25 grams of added sugar a day or 50, you need to know what counts as an “added sugar.” You’ll be relieved to know that the sugar in fruit is not considered to be an added sugar. Fruit is relatively high in sugar, of course, but also contains other desirable nutrients. And although it is possible to consume an excessive amount of sugar by eating lots and lots of fruit, this is generally not where the problem lies for most people.
To keep your diet in balance, aim for two to four servings of fruit a day, preferably whole, fresh fruit rather than juice. But you don’t have to count the sugar in fruit toward your added sugar total. You also don’t have to count the naturally occurring sugars found in dairy products like milk or unsweetened yogurt.
Here’s what does count: Any sugar that you use in your own cooking or add at the table, plus any sugar in processed or prepared foods or beverages counts as an added sugar.
Do Natural Sugars Count as Added Sugar?
When counting added sugars, no distinction is made between “natural” sugars like maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, or fruit juice concentrate, and refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup. All concentrated sweeteners are counted as added sugar, regardless of whether they are liquid or granular, organic, raw, natural, or refined. That doesn’t mean that natural or organic sugars don’t offer any advantages. It just means that you don’t get to consume more of them just because they are natural.
How to Reduce Your Added Sugar Intake
The next step is to figure out where all that added sugar is coming from. According to the American Cancer Society, almost half of the sugar in the typical diet comes from sweetened beverages. That would include soda and other soft drinks, sweetened teas and juice drinks, and sport drinks like Gatorade (although it wouldn’t include artificially sweetened beverages).
Another quarter of the added sugar in the typical diet comes from sweet treats like candy, cookies, cakes, ice cream, and sweetened breakfast cereal. And the remaining 25% or so of the sugar in our diet comes from the sugar that we use in cooking, add at the table, or stir into our coffee, plus all the sugar that’s hidden in processed and packaged foods like crackers, salad dressings, spaghetti sauce, and just about everything else.
How to Spot Added Sugar in Packaged Foods
Trading that afternoon cola for an unsweetened iced tea could cut 50 grams of added sugar out of your diet in a single swipe!
To see how much sugar is in packaged foods and beverages, take a look at the Nutrition Facts label, which tells you how many grams of sugar is in each serving. For most foods, all of the sugar on the label is “added sugar.” Quick and Dirty Tip: Be sure to check how many servings are in the package. Often a package that seems like a single serving actually contains two or three servings. If you eat or drink the whole thing, you’d need to multiply the grams of sugar per serving by the number of servings you consume.
Sometimes, however, the sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts label is a combination of added sugar and natural sugar from fruit or milk—and that can be a little trickier to calculate. You may have to do a little sleuthing around. For example, an 8-ounce carton of low-fat milk contains 12 grams of sugar. That’s all naturally occurring milk sugar (or lactose) and you wouldn’t have to count that toward your added sugar limit. An 8-ounce container of chocolate milk, on the other hand, contains 30 grams of sugar. If 12 grams of that are accounted for by lactose, you can estimate that the remaining 18 grams is added sugar.
Likewise, you can compare a jar of unsweetened applesauce with a jar of sweetened applesauce to see how much of the sugar is added and how much is natural sugar from the apples. Unless a product contains a substantial amount of whole fruit or dairy, however, I’d count all of the sugar in a packaged food as added sugar.
How Much Sugar Are You Eating?
Why not spend a couple of days tracking your added sugar intake? Check the labels of all packaged foods that you eat. Don’t worry about the naturally occurring sugar in fresh fruit or unsweetened dairy products but make sure to count any sugar that you put in your coffee or honey that you drizzle over your oatmeal. If you eat out, you can often get detailed nutrition information on restaurant websites or on websites like nutritiondata.com.
If you’re taking in more sugar than you mean to—or want to—take a look at where the sugar in your diet comes from and you might see some obvious ways to cut back. For example, just trading that afternoon cola for an unsweetened iced tea could cut 50 grams of added sugar out of your diet in a single swipe! (And for a reminder of why you might want to, see my article, “How Sugar Affects Your Body”)
I hope that clears up some of the confusion about what counts as an added sugar and how to figure out how much sugar is in processed foods. If you decide to track your added sugar intake—or to get serious about cutting back, let me know how it’s going.
Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!