We all know that we are supposed to limit our sugar intake, but why is that? Sugar itself is not an inherently dangerous substance. The problem is that it adds calories to our food without adding nutrients. Eating too much of it can lead to an unhealthy diet, weight gain, obesity, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and tooth decay.
How much sugar should you eat per day?
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, daily added sugars should be limited to:
- 45 g or 11 teaspoons (based on 1,800 kcal diet)
According to the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, and the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, the amount of added or free sugars you consume per day should be limited to the following:
- Women = around 25 grams or 6 teaspoons (based on a 2,000 calorie diet)
- Men = around 31 to 38 grams or 8 to 9 teaspoons (based on a 2,500 calorie diet)
The American Heart Association issued the following recommendations for children:
As a result of these findings, the AHA went on to make the following three important recommendations:
- Children and adolescents should consume no more than 25g (100 calories or ~6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day
- Children under the age of 2 should not consume any added sugars
- Children and adolescents should limit their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages to one or fewer 8-oz beverages per week
The UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition also provides the following recommendations for children:
- Ages 4 to 6 = no more than 19 grams or 5 teaspoons
- Ages 7 to 10 = no more than 24 grams or 6 teaspoons
- Ages 11 and up = no more than 30 grams or 7.5 teaspoons
To put that into perspective, a 12-ounce can of regular coca cola contains almost 10 teaspoons of sugar.
What is the difference between natural and added sugars?
Natural sugars are those found naturally in foods like fruit, vegetables, and milk. These sugars are not included in your daily allowance, because they are intrinsic in foods that also contain plenty of healthy nutrients.
Added sugars are those that are added to foods and drinks during processing or preparation by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer. They can include natural sugars (like white sugar and honey) as well as manufactured sugars (like high fructose corn syrup). The key is that they are added to a product. As soon as a sugar is added to a product it becomes an added sugar, even if it was a natural sugar to begin with.
The World Health Organization refers to ‘free sugars’ rather than added sugars, and includes fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates in the definition.
The daily sugar recommendations set out above only apply to added or free sugars, not to those found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and milk.
How do you calculate how much added sugar there is in a product?
Now comes the tricky part. How do you work out how much added sugar there is in a product? It is not that easy.
The nutrition labels on American and British products tell you how much sugar a food or drink contains. However, that number includes both natural and added sugars. For the purposes of our daily sugar limit, we are only concerned with added sugars. So how do you work out how many added sugars there are in a product?
- If the product has no fruit, vegetables, or milk products in the ingredients, then all of the sugars it contains are added.
- If, however, it does contain fruit, vegetables, or milk products, then the total sugar content includes added and natural sugars. In that case, the only thing you can do is look at the ingredient list. If sugar is listed as one of the ingredients, the product contains added sugars. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to calculate the amount of added sugars, but the higher up the ingredient list the sugar appears, the more there is in the product.
So how do you identify sugar in the list of ingredients? There are many different names for added sugars, and there may be more than one type in any given product. Here is a list of some other names for sugar to help you identify added sugars:
- Brown sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt sugar
- Raw sugar
- Sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, xylose)
- Hydrolyzed starch
- Evaporated cane juice
- Agave nectar
- Cane crystals
- Cane sugar
- Crystaline fructose
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this – try to satisfy your sweet tooth with natural sugars from fruits, vegetables, and unsweetened milk products as much as possible.
If you do want to indulge in foods or drinks with added sugars, keep your intake as low as possible. Added sugars are empty calories that can lead to weight gain, obesity, and many related health problems. It all comes back to my favorite saying – everything in moderation.