The average American consumes more than 17 teaspoons of added sugar each day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That’s nearly double of what most of us should eat. It adds about an extra 275 calories to our diet each day, and it contributes to increased rates of weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
“There are two types of sugar,” said Ashley Krautkramer, ThedaCare Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. “There are natural sugars that occur normally in fruits, some vegetables and milk, and then there are added sugars that are incorporated into food products to improve their taste or increase their shelf life. Natural sugars are not a concern. Added sugars are the ones we should avoid because they provide no nutritional benefit and contribute to weight gain and other health problems.”
The AHA offer the following guidelines for added sugar intake:
- Men – 9 teaspoons per day (150 calories or 36 grams)
- Women – 6 teaspoons per day (100 calories or 25 grams)
- Children and teens – 6 teaspoons per day (100 calories or 25 grams)
- Children under age 2 should not consume added sugars in their diets.
Krautkramer said added sugars are most often found in sugar-sweetened beverages, specialty coffee drinks, desserts and sweet snacks, including cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, ice cream, frozen dairy desserts, doughnuts, sweet rolls, and pastries.
“Added sugar can also be found in cereal, granola, yogurt, energy bars, baked goods, juice, salad dressings, sauces, ketchup, and even diet or fat-free foods,” she explained. “One 12-ounce can of soda contains 39 grams of added sugar, while a regular-sized Snickers candy bar contains 30 grams of added sugar.”
Krautkramer said the key to avoiding added sugar is reading labels.
“It is really important to read labels and understand what your food product contains,” she said. “Since 2018, the Food and Drug Administration has mandated that most packaged foods list the amount of added sugar in grams, which can help us stick to the AHA guidelines.”
She also noted that added sugar has many names.
“Some of the most common names are: high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, brown sugar, cane juice, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit nectars, glucose, honey, lactose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses and raw sugar,” she said. “As much as possible, you want to limit eating any products containing these ingredients.”
It is estimated that 75% of all packaged and frozen foods, other than frozen fruits and vegetables, contain some added sugars. Vegan and gluten-free products also contain added sugars, as may some products that are labeled as organic.
“By limiting the amount of highly processed food you eat, you’ll go a long way toward cutting back on added sugars,” Krautkramer said. “Again, we can’t over-emphasize how important it is to read food labels and recognize the names of added sugars.”
The AHA offers these suggestions for reducing sugar consumption:
- Toss the table sugar (white and brown), syrup, honey and molasses. Cut back on the amount of sugar added to things you eat or drink regularly like cereal, pancakes, coffee or tea. Try cutting the usual amount of sugar you add by half and wean down from there.
- Swap out the soda. Water is best, but if you want something sweet to drink or are trying to lose weight, diet drinks can be a better choice than sugary drinks.
- Eat fresh, frozen, dried or canned fruits. Choose fruit canned in water or natural juice. Avoid fruit canned in syrup, especially heavy syrup. Drain and rinse in a colander to remove excess syrup or juice.
- Compare food labels and choose products with the lowest amounts of added sugars. Dairy and fruit products will contain some natural sugars. Added sugars can be identified in the ingredients list.
- Add fruit. Instead of adding sugar to cereal or oatmeal, try fresh fruit (bananas, cherries or strawberries) or dried fruit (raisins, cranberries or apricots).
- Cut the serving back. When baking cookies, brownies or cakes, cut the sugar called for in your recipe by one-third to one-half. Often you won’t notice the difference.
- Try extracts. Instead of adding sugar in recipes, use extracts like almond, vanilla, orange or lemon. Or enhance foods with spices instead of sugar. Try ginger, allspice, cinnamon or nutmeg.
- Substitute. Switch out sugar with unsweetened applesauce in recipes.
Talking about children and sugar, Krautkramer said it’s important not to use sugary treats as rewards for kids.
“We’re constantly training our kids how to eat, so modeling good eating habits is very important,” she noted. “Think of it this way – when children may not have access to sweets regularly, they often want them more because it’s seen as a “restriction”. It’s best to have a neutral attitude towards sugar. Rather than just give kids unlimited access to sugary foods, it is recommended to serve them with meals or snacks, alongside other foods.”
Lastly, Krautkramer said some sugar is acceptable in our diet, especially natural sugars.
“If we are relatively active, we will burn off our sugar intake,” she said. “If you find yourself craving something sweet, consider eating fruit – berries, melons, apples, peaches, pears – or nuts – cashews, pistachios, macadamias, walnuts, and pecans. Those foods will reduce your urge for something sweet and they will provide better nutrition.”
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.