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The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Sugar
Evidence is mounting that a diet high in sugar may lead to hypertension and heart disease.

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The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Sugar

Love your sweets? Most Americans do, even though we know that sugar causes tooth decay and contributes to diabetes and obesity. But evidence is mounting that a diet high in sugar may be linked to other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

The United States government recommends people reduce the number of calories they eat from both added sugars (sugars that aren't naturally part of the food we eat) and solid fats. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that added sugars should not account for more than:

  • 100 calories (about 6 teaspoons) a day for women.
  • 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) a day for men.

What are added sugars?
So where is all this sugar coming from? There are two forms of sugar in the food we eat.

  • Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits, veggies and dairy products (fructose and lactose).
  • Added sugars are found in many processed foods, from sugary drinks, candy, cakes and cookies, to breakfast cereals, salad dressings, yogurts and breads.

A healthy, well-balanced diet contains mostly natural sugars, along with small amounts of added sugars, for taste. But food labels don't currently distinguish between the two. The nutrition information for non-fat milk or plain yogurt, for instance, lists 12 grams of sugar per serving. But this is from lactose, a natural sugar in milk. Pick up a fruited yogurt and the sugar amount jumps to 30 or 40 grams because of all the added sugars.

Label reading a must
You can find grams of sugar listed right under "carbohydrates" on the nutrition facts panel. If it's a dairy product or has some real fruit and/or vegetables, you can assume some of the sugar is natural.

You will know a product contains added sugars if you take a peek at the ingredient list. Be on the lookout for "hidden names" of added sugar, such as:

  • Cane juice
  • Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener
  • Dextrin, dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Glucose, maltose, sucrose
  • Barley malt
  • Turbinado
  • Honey, brown sugar, molasses, cane sugar, raw sugar, syrup
  • Sucanat
  • Fruit juice concentrates

Also know that sugar can lurk in places you may not expect, including fat-free foods. These may have more calories and sugar than their higher-fat counterparts.

Here are some examples of sugar amounts in everyday foods. Note that four grams of sugar is the same as one teaspoon.

Food Grams of sugar per serving Teaspoon equivalent
Frosted or sugared cereal 8-16 2-4
Salad dressings 4-8 1-2
Canned fruit 8-16 2-4
Bread 0-8 0-2
Crackers 0-8 0-2
Soups 4-8 1-2
Jellies and jams 4-8 1-2
Flavored yogurt 24-40 6-10
Frozen desserts 16-40 4-10
Juices, iced tea, etc. 20-36 4-9
Fast-food cinnamon roll 24 6
Soda 30-40 8-10
Large fast-food vanilla milkshake 144 36

Our love-affair with sugar
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Americans, on average, eat and drink about 22 teaspoons (335 calories) of sugar daily. That's almost a half cup of sugar a day, or about 130 to 140 pounds of sugar a year!

Data suggest that these calories take up 30 percent to 42 percent of total calorie intake. This added sugar contributes to an excess of "discretionary" calories. These are calories above and beyond what you need to maintain your current weight and provide adequate nutrients.

So the next time you want to go for that sugar high, remember that a candy bar or a cookie may give you an energy jolt. The effect will be short-lived, though ... and not in the best interest of your long-term health.

By Jane Harrison, RD, Contributing Writer
Created on 02/18/2008
Updated on 11/01/2012
  • American Heart Association. Scientific statement: Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health. Circulation. 2009;20:1011-1020.
  • United States Department of Agriculture and United States Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2010.
  • United States Food and Drug Administration. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
  • American Heart Association. Sugar and Carbohydrates.
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