If you're like many people, you may be eating and drinking more sugar than you realize because it's added to so many foods and beverages. That added sugar means added calories.
Some experts also suspect there's a relationship between added sugars and obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but this view is controversial.
Does that mean you can or should avoid added sugar? Not necessarily. Read on to learn more about added sugar, including where it's most commonly found.
A few facts about sugar
All sugar, whether natural or processed, is a type of simple carbohydrate that your body uses for energy. Fruits, vegetables and dairy foods all naturally contain sugar.
"Added sugar" refers to sugars and syrups added to foods during processing. Desserts, sodas, and energy and sports drinks are the top sources of added sugar for most Americans.
Why is sugar added to so many foods?
Sweetness has an almost universal appeal. So adding sugar to processed foods makes them more appetizing. But sugar is also added to foods because it:
- Boosts flavor
- Gives baked goods texture and color
- Helps preserve foods, such as jams and jellies
- Fuels fermentation, which enables bread to rise
- Serves as a bulking agent in baked goods and ice cream
- Balances the acidity of foods containing vinegar and tomatoes
Why is added sugar a problem?
Foods with a lot of added sugar contribute extra calories to your diet but provide little nutritional value. In addition, added sugar is often found in foods that also contain solid fats.
Eating too many foods with added sugar and solid fats sets the stage for potential health problems, such as:
- Poor nutrition. If you fill up on foods laden with added sugar, you may skimp on nutritious foods, which means you could miss out on important nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Regular soda plays an especially big role. It's easy to fill up on sweetened soft drinks and skip low-fat milk and even water — giving you lots of extra sugar and calories and no other nutritional value.
- Weight gain. There's usually no single cause for being overweight or obese. But added sugar may contribute to the problem. Many foods and beverages contain lots of sugar, making them more calorie-dense. When you eat foods that are sugar sweetened, it is easier to consume more calories than if the foods are unsweetened.
- Increased triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the bloodstream and fat tissue. Eating an excessive amount of added sugar can increase triglyceride levels, which may increase your risk of heart disease.
- Tooth decay. All forms of sugar promote tooth decay by allowing bacteria to proliferate and grow. The more often and longer you snack on foods and beverages with either natural sugar or added sugar, the more likely you are to develop cavities, especially if you don't practice good oral hygiene.
Recommendations regarding added sugar
In the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that no more than about 5 to 15 percent of your total daily calories come from added sugar and solid fats.
The American Heart Association has even more-specific guidelines for added sugar — no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar for most women and no more than 150 calories a day for most men. That's about 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 for men.
Unfortunately, most Americans get more than 22 teaspoons — or 355 calories — of added sugar a day, which far exceeds these recommendations.
Recognizing added sugar
Identifying added sugar can be confusing. Most people look at the Nutrition Facts part of the label for the total number of grams of sugar in a serving of the product. It's important to realize, however, that the amount shown includes natural sugars found in certain ingredients, such as grain, fruit and milk. The only reliable way to identify added sugar is to look at the ingredient list.
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If you see sugar listed among the first few ingredients, the product is likely to be high in added sugar. Know that sugar goes by many different names, though.
Different names for added sugar
Sugar goes by many different names, depending on its source and how it was made. This can also make it hard to identify added sugar, even when you read ingredient lists and food labels.
Check for ingredients ending in "ose" — that's the chemical name for many types of sugar, such as fructose, glucose, maltose and dextrose. Here's a list of other common types of added sugar:
- Cane juice and cane syrup
- Corn sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrate and nectars
- Malt syrup
Despite what you may have heard, there's no nutritional advantage for honey, brown sugar, fruit juice concentrate or other types of sugar over white sugar.
How to reduce added sugar in your diet
To reduce the added sugar in your diet, try these tips:
- Drink water or other calorie-free drinks instead of sugary, nondiet sodas or sports drinks. That goes for blended coffee drinks, too.
- When you drink fruit juice, make sure it's 100 percent fruit juice — not juice drinks that have added sugar. Better yet, eat the fruit rather than juice.
- Choose breakfast cereals carefully. Although healthy breakfast cereals can contain added sugar to make them more appealing to children, plan to skip the non-nutritious, sugary and frosted cereals.
- Opt for reduced-sugar varieties of syrups, jams, jellies and preserves. Use other condiments sparingly. Salad dressings and ketchup have added sugar.
- Choose fresh fruit for dessert instead of cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream and other sweets.
- Buy canned fruit packed in water or juice, not syrup.
- Snack on vegetables, fruits, low-fat cheese, whole-grain crackers and low-fat, low-calorie yogurt instead of candy, pastries and cookies.
The final analysis
By limiting the amount of added sugar in your diet, you can cut calories without compromising on nutrition. In fact, cutting back on foods with added sugar and solid fats may make it easier to get the nutrients you need without exceeding your calorie goal.
Take this easy first step: Next time you're tempted to reach for a soda or other sugary drink, grab a glass of ice-cold water instead.