No, Really: You’re Probably Eating Way Too Much Sugar

New health guidelines say you should steer clear of added sweeteners—but good luck managing that.

(Photo: Frank Rothe/Getty Images)

Mar 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Who says we ought to be eating less sugar? The World Health Organization, that’s who.

In a widely anticipated move, the organization this week released updated guidelines that recommend we get no more than 10 percent of our daily calorie intake from “free sugars,” or what is more commonly called “added sugar.” The health organization further recommends an overall general reduction in the consumption of added sugar over the course of a person’s lifetime—going so far as to suggest that limiting added sugar to just 5 percent of your daily calories is an even better target.

So what does that mean in real terms? For an average adult eating 2,000 calories a day, limiting sugar to 10 percent of calories equals 50 grams of sugar. Drink one 20-ounce Coke, which contains 65 grams, and you’re already over your limit. A 6-ounce container of Yoplait Original Strawberry yogurt packs 26 grams—that’s more than the 25 grams that would be your limit if your goal was the WHO’s more restrictive 5 percent target. And you only made it through breakfast.

In all, the average American consumes almost 90 grams of added sugar each day—22 teaspoons—according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

As two prominent researchers who have studied the impact of sugar consumption on heart disease, James J. DiNicolantonio and Sean C. Lucan, wrote in The New York Times last year, 75 percent of packaged foods—including countless savory products—contain added sugar. They noted, “If you consider that the added sugar in a single can of soda might be more than most people would have consumed in an entire year just a few hundred years ago, you get a sense of how dramatically our environment has changed."

Although food makers have vehemently decried what they see as a lack of science behind the growing concern over our sugar-eating habits, public health experts such as those at WHO say there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that the surfeit of sweet in our diet leads to obesity and the epidemic of related ailments, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

That’s put sugar in the crosshairs. Just last month, the committee charged with revising the federal dietary guidelines in the U.S. similarly set a recommended maximum of no more than 10 percent of daily calories from added sugar. It marked the first time the panel has advocated for a specific limit.

Such recommendations sound straightforward enough, but there’s a catch, one that can be more or less summed up in a single question: Do you really have any idea how much added sugar you eat every day?

Probably not. As defined by WHO, “added sugar” is sugar “added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit concentrates.” This definition excludes the sugar that naturally occurs in, say, fruits and vegetables. The processed food industry has cried foul, essentially saying that sugar is sugar—why differentiate between “added sugar” and the sugar that makes an apple sweet?

While health experts concede that all sugar impacts the body in similar ways, they argue that the problem isn’t sugar, it’s that we eat too darn much of it. And if you’re getting your sugar fix through fruits and vegetables, at least you’re also getting a bunch of nutrients your body needs. “Added sugar,” in other words, is just another way of saying “empty calories.”

But as of now, there’s no way for American consumers to tell just how much added sugar they’re eating. The Food and Drug Administration is weighing a redesign of the Nutrition Facts panel found on most food packaging, the first major revamp of the label since it debuted 20 years ago. Among the biggest changes the agency is considering is a separate line to distinguish “added sugar” from “sugar.” Despite intense opposition from the processed food industry, it looks like that will happen.

That still leaves plenty of room for confusion. Many health recommendations refer to sugar consumption in terms of teaspoons or even calories. The WHO recommendations, for example, present the 10 percent maximum as “200 calories” for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. Huh? Even with smartphone in hand, only the most tenacious of consumers is going to stand in the grocery aisle trying to calculate how many calories are in the 19 grams of sugar in a cup of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran.

A good rule of thumb if you want to watch your sugar intake: Steer clear of sugar-sweetened beverages, which account for half of the average American’s sugar consumption. Sure, soda is an obvious culprit, but a heap of sugar can be lurking in seemingly healthy drinks. A 15.2-ounce bottle of Odwalla’s Original Superfood Smoothie, for example, packs 49 grams of sugar. An 8-ounce glass of OJ can have upwards of 25 grams.

So yeah, avoid the beverage aisle in the grocery store. It becomes far tougher, however, if you want to stay below WHO’s alternative recommendation of just 25 grams of added sugar per day. It takes just two Nature Valley Greek Yogurt Protein Bars to get you almost there (22 grams). A Starbucks Grande Cappuccino with soy on your way to work in the morning (11 grams) and then, for dinner, a half cup of Prego Traditional Pasta Sauce over your spaghetti (10 grams) likewise add up. Toss a couple tablespoons of Wish Bone Fat-Free Ranch Dressing on your side salad (2 grams), and you can forget dessert.

Heck, just one of those single-serve Heinz ketchup packets snatched up by the handful at your local burger joint has 7 grams of sugar.

Add it all up, and you can see how we’re drowning in sugar, indeed.