As dietitians, sugar is one of the things we get asked about the most. We’re putting all of our facts about sugar into one place to make it easy for clients and readers to get evidenced-based answers to common questions.
Fun facts about sugar
- In addition to acting as a sweetener, sugar is also used as a preservative so food doesn’t spoil
- In the United States, about half of our sugar is sourced from sugar beets, which are genetically modified
- Cane sugar (from sugar cane) is the other main source of sugar in the United States
- It’s currently considered a “monitored risk” for becoming genetically modified by the Non-GMO Project
- The risk classification is due to either known cross contamination of the crop, or is based on data indicating the crop will likely be genetically modified in the near future
- Sugar cane used to only be available to the rich as a luxury and became a common product in New Guinea around 8000 BC
- One teaspoon of sugar contains 15 calories, which is equivalent to four grams of sugar
The average American consumes 42.5 teaspoons of sugar per day (we talk about how much is recommended below, but spoiler alert: 42.5 teaspoons is too much)!
If you were to consume 42.5 teaspoons of sugar per day for a year, you would consume 152 pounds of sugar. Two hundred years ago, it’s estimated that the average person consumed two pounds of sugar per year.
What are the different types of sugar?
We discussed sugar beets and sugar cane above as sources of sugar, below we classify sugar based on how it occurs in foods. This is a really important distinction to make when it comes to choosing healthier foods.
- Naturally occurring sugar – is sugar that naturally occurs in foods such as fruit, dairy products (with the exception of cheese) and some starchy vegetables.
Because naturally occurring sugar is found in foods with health benefits (dairy products, fruits and vegetables), it isn’t a concern for most people. However, it can add up and because of that, we recommend limiting fruit to two pieces or two servings daily.
- Added sugar – is sugar that is added during processing or preparation of food. This is where it gets confusing, there are so many names sugar can hide behind! See the colorful chart below for some of the less obvious names for added sugar.
The Main Added Sugar Sources
The following foods are the main contributors of sugar to the average American’s diet:
- Regular soft drinks
- Fruit drinks
- Juice and punch
- Dairy-based desserts and milk products
- Ice cream, sweetened yogurt and sweetened milk
Added sugar is where people tend to get in trouble, this is because added sugar occurs in processed foods. Processed foods are typically low in things your body needs (like vitamins and minerals), and high in things your body doesn’t need – like overly processed ingredients, added chemicals, and preservatives.
How much sugar are you eating?
A lot of people have no idea how much sugar they’re consuming, here’s why:
- Most sugar is added to foods during processing – it’s not necessarily being added by consumers
- It can be hard to identify on an ingredients list (see above)
- Sugar can also be in foods that don’t necessarily taste sweet, so you can be unaware that you’re consuming added sugar.
Thankfully, there are some changes taking place to the food label right now that will make navigating sugar intake much easier. A new food label is coming out, and must be on all products by January 2021. The new label has been mandated to include a line for added sugars. This is going to make it so much easier for people to know how much sugar they’re consuming.
A few other changes (highlighted below) are coming to the food label as well, you can learn more about the new food label here.
To get an idea of how much sugar you’re consuming, start by looking at food labels. With the new label it’s super simple – all you need to do is look at the added sugars line (see number four in the above picture). Your goal should be to keep your total added sugars for the day low. We recommend choosing options with five grams of added sugar (or less) per serving.
If an item you’re eating is high in added sugar and you get curious as to why or how that is, here’s an insider tip for reading ingredient lists:
Ingredient lists actually list ingredients by order of descending weight. This means the most prevalent ingredient will be listed first, and the least prevalent ingredient will be listed last. You can identify the added sugar either under a simple name like cane sugar or hidden behind a trickier name like high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, or dextrose (see the graphic above). So if sugar, or one of it’s aliases is towards the beginning of the ingredients list (one of the top five ingredients), that’s why the item is so high in added sugar.
If you do consume foods high in added sugars (and we all do sometimes ☺), just be conscious of how much you consume – typically added sugars are found in processed foods, which provide little (if any) nutritional value.
If sugar occurs naturally in the food you’re eating (if it’s unsweetened dairy with the exception of cheese, a starchy veggie or a fruit), there’s no need to worry. Our only recommendation is to limit fruit to two servings per day. Remember, the naturally occurring sources of sugar have potential health benefits. Dairy contains calcium, added vitamin D and iodine, while fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, fibers and essential vitamins and minerals.
How much sugar is okay to consume?
This is a really interesting topic. The FDA and USDA do not give an amount of sugar to consume because sugar is not a recommended nutrient.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar to less than 10% of total calories per day – for someone consuming a 2000 calorie diet, that is 50g of added sugar. This is wayyyyy to much in our opinion!
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams of added sugar per day for women (6 teaspoons) and no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day for men (9 teaspoons). Remember, it’s not recommended to consume this much – it’s recommended not to consume more than this much.
Either way, less is more in terms of health benefits when it comes to added sugar in your diet.
Dangers of sugar
Here are a few of our concerns with added sugars, based on the current literature.
- Consuming too much added sugar on a daily basis can wreak havoc on your microbiome. Sugar (and an overconsumption of carbohydrates for that matter) can actually feed bad bacteria and yeast in your gut causing one or both to overgrow.
- When someone’s sugar intake makes up more than 9% of the total calories they consume, sugar consumption begins to displace healthier food choices. Nutrient deficiencies are likely to occur when this happens. As an example, magnesium status tends to be lower in those whose diets are higher in added sugar.
- Foods high in sugar aren’t very satiating (unless you intentionally pair them with a healthy fat or protein) and can be easy to overeat.
- When consumed without fiber (as is usually the case with added sugars) sugar can cause blood sugar to spike. When blood sugar is constantly high, insulin resistance (also known as pre-diabetes and type II diabetes) can occur.
- Sugar can also create tiny micro-tears in the gut lining leading to increased permeability or leaky gut.
- Too much sugar in your diet can contribute to cavities and tooth decay.
- Sugar can weaken your immune system.
- High amounts of sugar intake are correlated with diabetes, weight gain, some cancers and heart disease.
How Can I Avoid Added Sugar?
The answer to this is simple – you can avoid added sugar by eating more whole foods. Whole foods are foods in their most natural state (or something you would find on the food chain). For example, a baked potato would be a whole food, and a potato chip would be a processed version of that whole food. You would easily find a potato on a food chain, but never a potato chip!
Tips for decreasing added sugars in your diet
- Add fresh fruit to cereal or oatmeal instead of sugar
- Buy fresh or frozen fruits instead of fruits canned in juice
- Use extracts such as almond, vanilla, orange or lemon or sweeter spices such as ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg
- Substitute unsweetened applesauce for sugar in recipes (use equal amounts)
What to do if I have a sweet tooth?
Here are some lower sugar, but satisfyingly sweet options for those sugar cravings.
- Make your own trail mix
- Try eating fresh or dried fruit and see if your sweet tooth can be satisfied that way
- Create a fruit and yogurt parfait and top it with granola
- Try a high protein option, like a nut butter (peanut butter, almond butter, or cashew butter) instead.
- Make baked apples and top with cinnamon and butter
Is sugar addictive?
- Call us biased, but we tend to link sugar addictions and sweet tooth issues to imbalanced gut bacteria. If you have an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria, sugar is a preferred energy source for them as it allows them to reproduce. A lot of times we see high sugar intake in clients with too many bad guys in their guts and not enough good guys.
- Some studies have shown gene variations in participants that consume excess sugar and alcohol, meaning sugar addiction could be genetic
- Additionally, consuming sugar can cause you to feel calm during times of stress (this could certainly be addicting). When we are under stress, our body chemistry becomes altered which prompts us to overeat and crave sugary foods. Cortisol increases and and serotonin decreases, stimulating carbohydrate and sugar cravings. Once carbs or sugar are consumed, serotonin increases again and a feeling of calm sets in.
Substitutes for sugar
While sugar alternatives may be significantly lower in calories than pure sugar, we recommend limiting your consumption, as they have been shown to have negative health consequences.
- Sugar substitutes may cause you to crave more sweet and sugary foods
- Some studies have linked sugar substitutes to a higher risk of glucose intolerance or weight gain
- We also aren’t a fan of sugar alcohols due to their negative effects on the microbiome