What is sugar?
Sugar is a sweetener that provides calories and is added to food and drinks to give them a sweet taste as well as texture, body and bulk. It is also sometimes called a caloric sweetener.
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that your body uses for fuel. It 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. The most common natural sugars are fructose, which is found in fruit, and lactose, which is found in milk products.
Added sugar is the sugar added to processed food and drinks while they are being made, as well as sugar you may add to your food at home. Food manufacturers may add both natural sugars (such as fructose) and processed sugars (such as high-fructose corn syrup) to processed food and drinks.
Why is sugar added to food and drinks?
While added sugar provides no nutritional value, it does serve many uses in food processing. Added sugar can:
- Serve as a preservative for jellies and jams
- Provide bulk to ice creams
- Assist in fermentation of breads and alcohol
- Maintain the freshness of baked goods
Sugar is also added to processed food and drinks because it makes them taste more appealing.
Why is it important to limit added sugar in my diet?
There are serious health consequences to consuming added sugar. Too much added sugar in your diet can contribute to 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 beverages that contain added sugar, you are less likely to consume healthy foods and beverages that protect your health. For example, studies have shown that the more sugary beverages (such as soda or juice drinks) people drink, the less milk they drink. Milk provides calcium, protein and vitamins that help your body function well, but soda and juice drinks provide a lot of calories from sugar and little to no nutritional value.
How much added sugar is too much?
Each individual needs a certain amount of calories each day to provide energy. You should try to meet most of your daily calorie needs by eating healthy low- or no-sugar foods that provide important nutrients for your body. If you are very physically active or if you choose healthy foods to meet most of your calorie needs, you may have some extra (called discretionary) calories left over. This means you may have some calories left for treats.
The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons (355 calories) of sugar each day, about the same amount of sugar in 2 12-ounce cans of non-diet (regular) soda plus a chocolate bar. Given the rising rates of obesity and heart disease, the American Heart Association recently released guidelines for eating added sugar. The AHA recommends that no more than half of your extra (discretionary) calories come from added sugars. For women, this means no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day (about 100 calories), about the same amount of sugar in a ½ cup serving of ice cream or less than a 12-ounce can of non-diet soda. Men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar a day (about 155 calories), about the same amount of sugar in a 16-ounce mocha coffee drink or a 12-ounce can of non-diet soda.
Sugar can have many names.
Check the ingredient list of the Nutrition Facts Label to find these added sugars:
- 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
How do I find out how much added sugar is in my food or drink?
Check the Nutrition Facts Label. Unfortunately, food manufacturers are not required to separate naturally occurring sugars from added sugars on the nutrition label. But you can see how much total sugar is in each serving. You can also check the ingredient list, which lists ingredients in descending order by weight. See the box below for a list of names that mean added sugar and can appear on a Nutrition Facts Label.
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 reading the information for sugar in each serving, keep these 2 nutrition tips in mind:
- 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 gram of sugar equals 4 calories
Using those 2 tips, you can take the information found on the Nutrition Facts label and understand what it really means. A food or beverage that contains 40 grams of sugar per serving is the same as 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories.
What can I do to avoid extra sugar in my diet?
To avoid excess added sugar, you should know what foods and drinks are highest in added sugar. Sugary drinks, including soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit drinks, are the number 1 source of added sugar in the American diet. A 12-ounce can of non-diet (regular) soda can contain 8 or more teaspoons of sugar and over 130 calories. That’s more sugar than the American Heart Association recommends for an average American woman in 1 day!
Other things you can do to limit your added sugar intake include:
- Limit or eliminate candy, sweets and baked goods
- Choose heart-healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains for meals and snacks
- Skip sugary drinks and choose water instead
- Cut out processed foods, which are often high not only in added sugar but also in fat and sodium
- When baking, look for recipes that use less sugar. Consider making ingredient substitutions to your favorite recipes. You may be able to use unsweetened applesauce, sugar substitutes or simply reduce the amount of sugar in your recipe.
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