One of the best habits you can get into when grocery shopping is reviewing nutrition facts panels and ingredients. Even if you don’t feel confident knowing how much sugar is too much or which ingredients you should limit, picking up two options of the same food and comparing the nutrition of the two can help you make a healthier decision.
That’s what I did recently when I was trying to select the best yogurt option for my daughter. I was SHOCKED how much sugar most flavored yogurts had–some close to 20 grams! A portion of that is naturally occurring sugar, however, a majority of it is added for flavor.
So what is added sugar and how is it different from naturally occurring sugar? How much is too much? What foods contain added sugar?
Added sugars are sugars that are just that–they are added to a food when they are processed or prepared. You find them in foods like cakes, cookies, muffins, sweetened breakfast cereals, candy, and sugar-sweetened beverages such as juices and soft drinks. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit or milk, are not added sugars. Naturally occurring sugars aren’t necessarily better for you than added sugars, but keeping the amount of added sugars consumed in check can help you better manage your overall sugar intake.
Should I be Concerned?
Sugar is an important part of your diet. Our brains survive on sugar (also known as glucose), however most people overdo their sugar consumption in part due to the excessive amounts of added sugars to foods (see below).
A sweet treat here and there in addition to a healthy and balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins isn’t going to hurt you. The problem occurs when too much is consumed over a long period of time. Eating too many foods with added sugars is linked to poor nutrition, weight gain (from the extra calories), increased risk of heart disease, and tooth decay.
Added Sugar Recommendations
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that means no more than 200 calories (or 50 grams) a day should come from added sugars.
The American Heart Association has a bit stricter limit for added sugars which is no more than 100 calories per day for most women and no more than 150 calories per day for most men. That’s about 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons) a day of sugar for women and 36 grams (or 9 teaspoons) for men.
Ready to be shocked? The average adult consumes closer to 66 grams of added sugar each day. And that’s not taking into consideration the naturally occurring sugars they get in their diets!
Playing Detective with the Nutrition Facts Label
When looking at nutrition facts panels of foods, keep in mind that:
4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon
- There are 4 calories per 1 gram of sugar
Pretend you’re at the store looking at this seemingly healthy strawberry yogurt (I mean, it says it’s free of dairy, gluten, and GMOs.). You then check out the nutrition facts on the back and see that it has 18 grams of sugar.
- Multiply 18 grams by 4 = 72 calories from sugar
- Divide 18 grams by 4 = 4.5 teaspoons
Still think it’s a healthy option? As a nutrition professional, I recommend staying below 10 grams of sugar for a serving of yogurt.
It’s also important to note that added sugar has many names depending on where it came from and how it’s made. Check for ingredients ending in “ose” as that is the chemical name for many types of sugars, such as fructose, maltose, and dextrose. Here is a list of common types of sugars:
- Cane juice and cane syrup
- Corn Syrup and high fructose corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates and nectars.
- Malt syrup
Look out for sugars in the ingredients list as they are placed in descending order. In other words, the higher the sugar is on the list, the more sugar the food item contains.
Ways to cut Back on Added Sugars
- Drink water instead! I have found that by drinking more water, I rely less on soda and juice to satisfy my thirst. Carrying around a reusable water bottle helps, too. To make water more fun, infuse it with fruit and herbs. (A squeeze of lemon and fresh, crushed up mint leaves is my favorite!)
- If you’re going to drink juice, make it 100% so at least you’re getting vitamins and minerals. Just remember, fruit juice is stripped of all of it’s fiber making it pretty much concentrated sugar. When in doubt, eat the whole fruit!
- Choose breakfast cereals with less added sugar, aim for 5 grams or less per serving. I like making my own oatmeal with a tiny bit of maple syrup and fresh berries for more fiber and natural sweetness.
- Buy plain yogurt and add fruit.
- Buy canned fruit packed in water or juice and not syrup.
- When making smoothies, sweeten with fruit instead of sweeteners like honey or agave.
- When a recipe calls for sugar, try applesauce, dates, or stevia.
Need Help Removing Added Sugars From Your Diet?
Making healthy choices can be difficult. There is always a lot to learn about your nutrition habits.
Consider joining our next 21-Day Diet Reset program and be a part of our community of supportive members. With our diet reset program, you get access with me, Gillean. I am a Registered Dietitian with the goal of making nutrition easier! Not more work, life already has too much work.