One question people don’t often ask—but perhaps should—is how much sugar they’re allowed on a daily basis.
“People tend to think that just because they’re not adding table sugar to their meals, they don’t need to be concerned about sugar, when in fact, there’s so much added sugar in the foods we eat that many of us are well over the daily limit in one or two sittings,” says Judy Matusky, a registered dietitian with Main Line Health.
Sugar in our diets adds “empty” calories that offer no nutritional benefit and has likely contributed to the obesity epidemic.
What does that daily limit look like?
Per the American Heart Association guidelines, it’s six teaspoons (24 grams) of added sugar for women and nine teaspoons (36 grams) for men.
Sugar servings can be difficult to decipher on food nutrition labels because not only are the serving amounts listed in grams, which can make it challenging to translate back into teaspoons (4 grams = 1 teaspoon), but also because the sugar listing includes naturally occurring sugar, such as those from milk or fruit.
The only way to really decipher how much sugar is natural versus added is to scan the ingredients list for sugar, in one of its many disguises as listed below:
- Agave nectar
- Evaporated cane juice (organic or otherwise)
- Malt or maple syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- Cane sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, or invert sugar
- Glucose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose or fructose
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
Sixteen ounces of SoBe green tea, for example, comes in with a whopping 10 teaspoons of sugar—1.6 times more than the daily allowance of added sugar for women!
To offset the overwhelming realization that most packaged food and beverages are loaded with sugar, there is hope on the horizon: A new FDA ruling requires that, by 2018, sugar content be itemized on nutrition labels so consumers will be able to easily see how much of the total grams of sugar in any product is added sugar.
How to avoid excess sugar and knowing how much is too much
Once you know you’re consuming too much sugar without even trying, how do you escape it?
Matusky admits, “With salt it’s a little easier. We’re not born with a propensity to like salty things. That’s a learned taste preference. To get people to cut back on salt, it takes a few weeks, but it then becomes easier to eat salt at a lower level.”
Sugar, on the other hand, is a bit more challenging. Matusky points to the fact that we are born to prefer a sweet taste—for example, a mother’s milk.
“It’s in our genetic makeup,” Matusky says. “A combination of genetic and environment affects a person’s preferences and the level of interest in sweets—some people simply enjoy sweets more than others.”
But there’s even more to it than that, she adds. As consumers, it can be difficult to say no to such appetizing treats—even if you don’t have a sweet tooth.
“The food companies do a remarkable job with food science, producing products that are so palatable, so good at reaching the ‘bliss point’—that magical mix of sugar, salt and fat—that people want to keep eating it. If you tend to eat a lot of processed food, it’s harder for you to desire healthier food. Vegetables might not taste quite as good when you’re used to Doritos,” she says.
But rather than cut out your favorite snacks altogether, assess your eating patterns as a whole. If you’re eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains as well as lean protein—but maybe some processed foods here and there—you’re probably doing reasonably well with sugar intake.
A good way to assess your behavior is to examine your grocery shopping cart. See how many foods are from the interior aisles versus the perimeter of the supermarket where the healthier foods reside. Your goal should be roughly 80 percent of your cart filled with items from the outer edges of the supermarket. If the opposite is true and you’ve got a lot of boxes, bags, frozen items and canned goods, you might need to rethink the types of food you’re buying.
Getting to the sweet truth about nonnutritive sweeteners
While there have been some studies and professional perspectives on the role that nonnutritive sweeteners like Splenda, Stevia and NutraSweet have played in the epidemic of obesity and other metabolic disorders, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that "consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive sweeteners and nonnutritive sweeteners when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations." There has also been research suggesting that using nonnutritive sweeteners, which are usually many times sweeter than sugar, heightens an individual’s sense of sweet so much that it’s difficult to appreciate natural sweetness, or a food that is seemingly less sweet.
“If you’re used to eating high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar, that’s where you’re setting your palate. If we can lower that taste perception and get it to a normal level where you appreciate the natural flavor in fruits, vegetables or a grilled piece of chicken, I think it helps you to make better choices—and it makes those better choices more enjoyable,” explains Matusky.
To begin adjusting your taste perception, Matusky suggests putting intensely sweet foods—including sweeteners—to the side for a week. Once the week is over, go back and try it.
“You’re going to notice how sweet it is,” she says. “And having been off that intense sweetness for so long, you’ll be more attracted to a less sweet taste. This simple exercise can help you gain appreciation for a natural sweetness, like that in fruit.”
Keeping in mind the grocery cart guide, Matusky reminds people not to be too hard on themselves when it comes to analyzing sugar consumption.
“It’s not so much about each individual meal or food you eat, but how was your week? Overall, if you made pretty good choices, you don’t have to analyze every single food.”