What is sugar?
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that provides calories for your body to use as energy. Sugar has no other nutritional value.
What is the difference between “naturally occurring sugar” and “added sugar”?
Naturally occurring sugar is the sugar found in whole, unprocessed foods, such as milk, fruit, vegetables, and some grains. One of the most common natural sugars is fructose, which is found in fruit. Another common natural sugar is lactose, which is found in milk.
Added sugar is the sugar that is added to processed foods and drinks while they are being made. Food manufacturers may add both natural sugars (for example, fructose) and processed sugars (for example, high-fructose corn syrup) to processed foods and drinks. The sugar you add to your food at home is also added sugar.
In the United States, the average man consumes 335 calories (about 21 teaspoons) of added sugar each day. The average woman consumes 239 calories (about 15 teaspoons) of added sugar each day.
Why is sugar added to foods and drinks?
Added sugar provides little to no nutritional value, but it does serve many uses in food processing. For example, added sugar can:
- Improve the flavor, color, or texture of foods and drinks
- Keep jellies and jams from spoiling
- Help fermentation in breads and alcohol
- Keep baked goods fresh longer
What are the main sources of added sugar in the United States?
- Sugary drinks (for example, soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, and juice drinks)
- Pies and cobblers
- Sweet rolls, pastries, and doughnuts
- Dairy desserts (for example, ice cream and sweetened yogurt)
Why is it important to limit added sugar in my diet?
If you eat or drink too much added sugar it can lead to health problems including tooth decay, obesity, difficulty controlling type 2 diabetes, higher triglyceride levels, lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL, also called “good”) cholesterol levels, and heart disease.
Also, if you fill up on foods or drinks that contain added sugar, you are less likely to eat and drink healthy options. For example, studies have shown that the more sugary drinks people drink, the less milk they drink. Milk provides calcium, protein, and vitamins that help your body function well. Sugary drinks provide many calories from sugar and little to no nutritional value.
How much added sugar is too much?
Your body needs a certain amount of calories each day for energy. Think of this as your daily calorie goal. Different people have different daily calorie goals. For example, an adult athlete needs more calories than an active child.
Most of the calories you eat or drink are used to meet your body’s nutrient needs. However, added sugars in foods and drinks add calories that provide little or no nutritional value. These calories are sometimes called “empty calories.” A small amount of empty calories in your diet is okay, but you may gain weight if you eat or drink too many empty calories.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's website ChooseMyPlate.gov lists recommended daily limits for empty calories. These limits are based on a person’s age and gender. For example, the recommended daily limit for women 31 to 50 years of age is no more than 160 empty calories each day. That is 10 teaspoons of added sugar each day. The recommended daily limit for men 31 to 50 years of age is no more than 265 empty calories each day. That is about 17 teaspoons of added sugar each day. These empty calorie limits are for a person who gets less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity (for example, brisk walking, water aerobics) most days.
How can I find out how much added sugar is in my food or drink?
Check the Nutrition Facts Label on the food or drink package. Food manufacturers do not have to list naturally occurring sugars and added sugars separately on this label. However, you can see how much total sugar is in each serving.
You can also check the ingredient list, which lists ingredients in order by amount, with the largest amount listed first. See the box below for a list of types of added sugar that may appear on a Nutrition Facts Label. If one of these types is listed among the first few ingredients, the food or drink is probably high in added sugar.
Sugar can have many names.
Check the ingredient list of the Nutrition Facts Label on a food or drink package to look for the following added sugars:
- Agave syrup
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice and cane syrup
- Confectioners’ sugar
- Corn sweetener and corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- Granulated white sugar
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
The Nutrition Facts Label says 40 grams of sugar per serving. What does that really mean?
The information listed on the Nutrition Facts Label can be confusing. When you read the amount of sugar in each serving, keep the following in mind:
- 1 gram of sugar equals 4 calories
- 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon of sugar
If the Nutrition Facts Label says that a food or drink contains 40 grams of sugar per serving, that information tells you that 1 serving contains 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories.
What can I do to avoid added sugar in my diet?
Ways to avoid added sugar include the following:
- Limit or cut out candy, baked goods, and dairy desserts.
- Choose heart-healthy foods (for example, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains) for meals and snacks.
- Skip sugary drinks and choose water instead. A 12-ounce can of non-diet (regular) soda can contain 8 or more teaspoons of sugar and more than 130 calories.
- Cut out processed foods. These are often high in added sugar, fat, and sodium.
- Look for recipes that use less sugar when you are cooking or baking.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.
See a list of resources used in the development of this information.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff