Added sugar: Don't get sabotaged by sweeteners

Do you know how much sugar is in your diet? See why added sugar is a concern and how you can cut back.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you're like many people, you may be eating and drinking more sugar than you realize because it's added to so many foods and beverages. Added sugar adds calories without adding nutrients.

Some evidence suggests there's a relationship between added sugars and obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but this relationship isn't entirely clear.

Does that mean you should avoid added sugar? Not necessarily. Read on to learn more about added sugar, including where it's most commonly found.

A few facts about sugar

All sugar, whether natural or processed, is a type of simple carbohydrate your body uses for energy. Fruits, vegetables and dairy foods naturally contain sugar.

"Added sugar" refers to sugars and syrups added to foods during processing. Desserts, sodas, and energy and sports drinks are the top sources of added sugar for most Americans, but many other foods contain added sugar.

Why is sugar added to so many foods?

Sweetness has an almost universal appeal. So adding sugar to processed foods makes them more appetizing. But sugar is also added to foods because it:

  • Boosts flavor
  • Gives baked goods flavor, texture and color
  • Helps preserve foods, such as jams and jellies
  • Fuels fermentation, which enables bread to rise
  • Serves as a bulking agent in baked goods and ice cream
  • Balances the acidity of foods containing vinegar and tomatoes

Why is added sugar a problem?

Foods with a lot of added sugar contribute extra calories to your diet, but provide little nutritional value. In addition, added sugar is often found in foods that also contain solid fats, such as butter, margarine or shortening in baked goods.

Eating too many foods with added sugar and solid fats sets the stage for potential health problems, such as:

  • Poor nutrition. If you fill up on sugar-laden foods, you may skimp on nutritious foods and miss out on important nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Regular soda plays an especially big role. It's easy to fill up on sweetened soft drinks and skip low-fat milk and even water — giving you lots of extra sugar and calories and no other nutritional value.
  • Weight gain. There's usually no single cause for being overweight or obese. But added sugar might contribute to the problem. Adding sugar to foods and beverages makes them more calorie dense. It's easy to consume extra calories when eating foods that are sugar sweetened.
  • Increased triglycerides. Triglycerides are a type of fat in the bloodstream and fat tissue. Eating an excessive amount of added sugar can increase triglyceride levels, which may increase your risk of heart disease.
  • Tooth decay. All forms of sugar promote tooth decay by allowing bacteria to multiply and grow. The more often and longer you snack on foods and beverages with either natural sugar or added sugar, the more likely you are to develop cavities, especially if you don't practice good oral hygiene.

Recommendations regarding added sugar

In the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that no more than about 5 to 15 percent of your total daily calories come from added sugar and solid fats.

The American Heart Association has even more-specific guidelines for added sugar — no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar for most women and no more than 150 calories a day for most men. That's about 6 teaspoons of added sugar for women and 9 for men.

Unfortunately, most Americans get more than 22 teaspoons — or 355 calories — of added sugar a day, which far exceeds these recommendations.

Aug. 01, 2015 See more In-depth