Frequently Asked Questions About Sugar

Updated:Jul 27,2018

Are all sugars bad?
No, but added sugars add calories and zero nutrients to food. Adding a limited amount of sugars to foods that provide important nutrients—such as whole-grain cereal, flavored milk or yogurt—to improve their taste, especially for children, is a better use of added sugars than nutrient-poor, highly sweetened foods.

How can I tell if a product has added sugars?
Current nutrition labels don’t list the amount of added sugars (alone) in a product. The line for “Sugars” you see on the Nutrition Facts label includes both added and naturally occurring sugars in the product.

You need to read the ingredient list on a processed food’s label to tell if the product contains added sugars. Some names for added sugars include agave syrup, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sugar, syrup.

It will be important for policy makers, the food industry and other public health groups to make identifying added sugars simpler for consumers. In 2014, the FDA proposed updates to the Nutrition Facts label that would require information about the amount of added sugars in a food product to help consumers know how much sugar is added to their foods.

What are added sugars?
Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation. They do not include naturally occurring sugars such as those found in milk (lactose) and fruits (fructose). Added sugars (or added sweeteners) include natural sugars (such as white sugar, brown sugar and honey) as well as other caloric sweeteners that are chemically manufactured (such as high fructose corn syrup). Some names for added sugars include agave syrup, brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sugar, syrup.

What is the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates?
All carbohydrates are made up of units of sugar ("saccharide"). Carbohydrates containing only one unit of sugar (called "monosaccharides") or two units of sugar (called "disaccharides") are known as simple sugars or simple carbohydrates. Simple sugars are quickly broken down and provide a very fast increase in blood sugar, while complex carbs take longer and cause blood sugar to rise more gradually. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as starchy vegetables (corn, potatoes, peas, etc.), breads, cereals, rice and grains. Complex carbs are broken down into the simple sugars during digestion, which causes them to be processed more slowly in the body.

Why are sugars added to food?

Sugars are often added to foods during processing to make them sweeter or change the taste.

What does the AHA recommend as a limit for daily added sugars intake?
The American Heart Association recommends that no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance come from added sugars. For most American women, this is no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons). For men, it’s no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons).

Typically, foods high in added sugars do not have nutrients the body needs and only contain extra calories. To get the nutrients you need, eat a diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, lean meats, fish, poultry and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

What are discretionary calories?
Discretionary calories are in addition to those that supply the nutrients to your body for daily function and activity. Your body does not actually need them to function. You have a daily energy need—the amount of calories (or energy units) your body needs to function and provide energy for your activities. Think of it as a budget. You’d organize a real budget with “essentials” (for example, rent and utilities) and “extras” (for example, vacation and entertainment). In a daily calorie budget, the essentials are the minimum number of calories you need to meet your nutrient needs. Depending on the foods you choose and the amount of physical activity you do each day, you may have more calories left over for “extras,” such as foods containing some added sugars. These are discretionary calories, or calories to be spent at your discretion. A person’s discretionary calorie budget varies depending on how physically active they are and how many calories they need to consume to meet their daily nutrient requirements.

How are the remaining discretionary calories consumed if not as added sugars?
Common sources of discretionary calories (in addition to added sugars) are fats, oils and alcohol. Fats are the most concentrated source of calories. Discretionary calories can be used to:
  • Eat additional foods from a food group above your daily recommendation.
  • Select a higher-calorie form of a food that’s higher in fat or contains added sugars (for example, sweetened vs. unsweetened cereal).
  • Add fats or sweeteners to foods (for example, sauce, dressing, margarine). 
How many calories are in 1 teaspoon (tsp) of sugar?
One teaspoon (tsp) of sugar has about 16 calories.

How much added sugars do most Americans consume?

Americans eat about 20 teaspoons of sugar a day according to a report from the 2005–10 NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) database. Teens and men consume the most added sugars. Average daily consumption for men: 335 calories, women: 230 calories, boys: 362 calories, girls: 282 calories.

What foods and beverages are the main sources of added sugars in Americans' diets?
Sugar-sweetened beverages including regular soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit drinks (fruitades and fruit punch); syrup; candy; cakes and cookies; dairy desserts and milk products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and sweetened milk).

Does this mean I should avoid all soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages?
You can choose how to spend your discretionary calories. Regular soft drinks are the No. 1 source of added sugars in Americans’ diets. A 12-ounce can of regular soda contains an estimated 130 calories (or 8 teaspoons) of added sugars. People who consume lots of sugar-sweetened beverages eat too many sugar calories and tend to gain weight. Carefully monitor the number of calories you get from sodas and other sources of added sugars.

How can added sugars be used (within the recommended limits) to enhance the quality of people's diets?
Sugars can promote enjoyment of meals and snacks. It is preferable that discretionary calories from sugar are added to otherwise nutrient-rich foods, such as dairy products (flavored milk and yogurt) and foods that provide whole grains and fiber (sugar-sweetened cereals).

How do added sugars affect the quality of an individual’s diet?

Some studies show that eating large amounts of added sugars is associated with diets low in calcium, vitamin A, iron and zinc. Also, diets that are high in added sugars are typically low in fiber. This is important because increasing dietary sources of fiber is associated with decreasing energy intake, which can result in weight loss.

Why are “liquid calories” and “solid calories” different?
Some studies suggest that drinking too many calories is even more likely to cause weight gain than eating too many calories from solid foods. It is suggested that liquid calories are not as satisfying as calories consumed from solid foods, so people tend to consume more fluid calories to compensate. Reducing liquid calorie intake has a stronger effect on weight loss than reducing solid calories.
People should carefully monitor the calories they drink and get enough water to maintain proper hydration every day.

What is the American Heart Association’s recommendation for sugar-sweetened beverages?
The American Heart Association recommends that all Americans consume no more than 450 calories (36 ounces) per week from sugar-sweetened beverages (based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet).

Are certain types of added sugars or sweeteners better than others?
The AHA hasn’t taken a position for or against certain types of added sugars or sweeteners, but we will continue to assess the science on this topic and any relevance to the impact on cardiovascular disease.

Since diet sodas and other products made with non-nutritive (artificial or natural) sweeteners contain zero calories from added sugars, does that mean they can be consumed freely? For adults, an occasional diet drink may help replace high calorie sodas and other sugary drinks. For kids, it’s best to not drink any diet beverages on a regular basis and no more than one 8-ounce sugary drink a week. The best thing to drink is also the most natural – water – which should be what children and adults drink most of the time. Just because a product is labeled “sugar free” and made with artificial or natural sweeteners doesn’t mean that you should eat or drink it often. If you drink diet beverages regularly, try to switch to water as your first choice and eat a variety of foods that are high in nutrients and low in added sugars.

Last Reviewed 5/19/2014

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