Eating too much sugar can lead to a lot of negative consequences—obesity, diabetes, liver problems, high blood pressure, and heart issues, to name a few. Even with this knowledge, the average American consumes nearly 66 pounds of added sugar every year.
There are 2 types of sugar in your diet:
Naturally occurring sugar, which comes from foods such as fruits, whole grains, dairy, rice, and starchy vegetables like peas, corn, beans, and sweet potatoes.
Added sugar, which is added during processing or preparation of food products. This kind of sugar is included in obvious food items like candy, soda, and cakes, but it can also be in places you don’t expect, like pasta sauce, salad dressing, and yogurt under many different names.
Are they both created equal? No, according to Cedars-Sinai registered dietitian Rachele Dependahl. "Stick to food items with natural sugar like complex carbohydrates and whole foods rather than items with added sugar like refined carbohydrates, desserts, and junk food," she says.
You should keep your intake of added sugars to less than 5% of total daily calories as part of a healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and 36 grams for men.
Unfortunately, you can't easily tell when a food product has natural or added sugars.
"At this point in time, manufacturers are not required to list if sugar is naturally occurring or added in the nutrition facts section on food labels," says Rachele. "Look in the ingredients section for keywords."
Keep an eye out for the following words to help you spot a form of added sugar.
Friend or Foe?
So is sugar the enemy? It's not quite that simple.
Sugar, a type of carbohydrate, is broken down into glucose, which is the simplest form of energy. Naturally-occurring sugars—like those in fruit and whole grains—take longer to digest, which help you feel full for longer and help regulate blood sugar. Added sugars—like those in candy, junk food, and sometimes added to other packaged foods like whole grain bread—are digested quickly, which may give you an immediate energy burst, but a crash later.
"It's a balancing equation," Rachele says. "We need glucose for energy, but we also need to think about what our goals are—especially in terms of how much we are moving and using the energy each day. If we overeat any type of carbohydrate, it can result in weight gain, increased cholesterol, and potentially diabetes."
Is it really sugar-free?
Often, packaged foods use words like "sugar-free" and "reduced sugar," but their meaning can be misleading. Understanding these definitions can help you avoid added sugars:
Sugar-Free: Less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
Reduced Sugar or Less Sugar: At least 25% less sugar per serving compared to a standard serving size of the original product
No Added Sugars or Without Added Sugars: No sugar is added during processing, but naturally-occurring sugar may be present
Be vigilant about your intake of added sugar—it finds its way into many food items. Always check food labels, even if you don't think the item contains sugar. You might be surprised at what you find.