Added sugars: Don't get sabotaged by sweeteners

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

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you're like many people, you're probably eating and drinking more sugar than you realize. That's because it's added to so many foods and beverages.

Added sugar contributes calories but not nutrients. Some evidence links sugars to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, but the connection isn't entirely clear.

Read on to learn more about added sugars and where they're 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 sugars" are the sugars and syrups added to foods during processing. Sodas, desserts, and energy and sports drinks are the top sources of added sugars for most people in the U.S. But these aren't the only foods with added sugars.

Why is sugar added to so many foods?

Adding sugar to processed foods makes them more appealing. Sugar is also added to foods because it:

  • 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 are added sugars a problem?

Foods with added sugars contribute extra calories to your diet but provide little nutritional value.

Eating too many foods with added sugars sets the stage for potential health problems, such as:

  • Poor nutrition. If you choose sugar-laden foods instead of more nutritious foods, you miss out on important nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
  • Weight gain. There's no single cause for being overweight or obese. But added sugar might contribute to the problem. It's easy to get 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. Sugar promotes tooth decay by allowing bacteria to multiply and grow. The more often you eat or drink foods with natural sugar or added sugar, the more likely you are to get cavities.

Recommendations regarding added sugars

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults limit added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that means no more than 200 calories a day should come from added sugars. That's about 12 teaspoons (48 grams) of sugar.

The American Heart Association suggests a stricter limit for added sugars — no more than 100 calories from added sugar a day for most women and no more than 150 calories from added sugar a day for most men. That's about 6 teaspoons (24 grams) of sugar for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of sugar for men.

To put these numbers into perspective, 1 teaspoon (4 grams) of sugar has about 16 calories. A 12-ounce can of regular soda has about 150 calories — about 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of sugar.

Recognizing added sugars

Check the label. Packaged foods and drinks must list ingredients in descending order by weight. If sugar is one of the first few ingredients, the product is likely to be high in added sugars.

The Nutrition Facts label displays the total amount of all sugars found in a serving of the product. This number includes both natural and added sugars. The label also includes a line for added sugars, reported in grams and percent Daily Value.

Different names for added sugars

Sugar goes by many names, depending on its source and how it was made. This can make it hard to identify added sugars, even when you read ingredient lists and food labels.

Check for ingredients ending in "ose" — that's the chemical name for many types of sugar, such as fructose, glucose, maltose and dextrose.

Here's a list of other common types of added sugars:

  • Cane juice and cane syrup
  • Corn sweetener and high-fructose corn syrup
  • Fruit juice concentrate and nectar
  • Honey
  • Malt
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses

Despite what you may have heard, there's no nutritional advantage to honey, brown sugar or other types of sugar over white sugar.

How to reduce added sugars in your diet

To reduce the added sugars in your diet, try these tips:

  • Drink water, other calorie-free drinks or low-fat milk instead of sugary sodas or sports drinks. That goes for coffee drinks, too.
  • When you drink fruit juice, make sure it's 100% fruit juice — not juice drinks that have added sugars. Better yet, eat the fruit rather than drink the juice to get the fiber as well.
  • Choose breakfast cereals with less sugar. Skip sugary and frosted cereals.
  • Opt for reduced-sugar varieties of syrups, jams, jellies and preserves.
  • Choose fresh fruit for dessert instead of cakes, cookies, pies, ice cream and other sweets.
  • Buy canned fruit packed in water or juice, not syrup. If you do purchase fruit packed in syrup, drain and rinse it with water to remove excess syrup.
  • Choose nutrient-rich snacks such as vegetables, fruits, low-fat cheese, whole-grain crackers and low-fat, low-calorie yogurt instead of candy, pastries and cookies.

The final analysis

By limiting the amount of added sugars in your diet, you can cut calories without compromising nutrition. In fact, cutting back on foods with added sugars may make it easier to get the nutrients you need without exceeding your calorie goal.

Take this easy first step: Next time you're tempted to reach for a soda or other sugary drink, grab a glass of ice-cold water instead.

April 03, 2021 See more In-depth

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