How Much Added Sugar Do You Really Eat? Crouching Sugar, Hidden Fat

There's more sugar in food than you think

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

You’ve heard the message: Carbohydrates make us fat. If you do a quick search online for carbohydrate books, you’ll see over four million results pop up instantly—books like The Ultimate Carbohydrate Counter, The Ultimate Low-Carb Diet Cookbook, and the entire series of books by Dr. Atkins. Perhaps not all carbohydrates are evil, but as Dr. Ormsbee explains, there is one kind we should watch out for.

Sugar being poured from spoon
Added sugars in the food we eat can be found by other names, such as cane syrup, molasses, sucrose, maltodextrin, as listed on the ingredients list on packaging. Photo by Hafiez Razali / Shutterstock

What Is Added Sugar?

Carbohydrates are often blamed for the now 2.1 billion people—30 percent of the world’s population—that are obese. The carbohydrates found in sugary desserts, sodas, and sports drinks cause dramatic changes to your hormones and can prime your body to store fat. These foods have what we call added sugars, which means that sugar was added in the preparation of the food.

Sugar is one form of carbohydrate, and added sugars are different from the sugar that is naturally in the food. It is the difference between sugars in a candy bar compared to the sugar you would find in fruit.

Most people don’t think they eat many added sugars. The trouble is that sugars are hidden in many of the foods we eat like candy, crackers, and many boxed goods because it provides a flavor that most people like. 

Most of the foods we eat that are pre-packaged have sugars. To find out, just look at the Nutrition Facts label, and you’ll see a section called sugars.

Risks and Recommendations

Added sugars have been shown to increase inflammation in our vascular system and are linked with diabetes, and they have been recently shown to increase your risk of death from cardiovascular disease. 

Unfortunately, the current recommendations on how much added sugar is acceptable vary significantly. The Institute of Medicine recommends that less than 25 percent of your total calorie intake come from added sugars. However, the World Health Organization recently lowered its recommendation of added sugars from less than 10 percent to less than 5 percent of total daily calorie intake.

In real life, it can be hard to determine how much this actually is in terms of real food. For example, the American Heart Association recommends less than 100 calories or 25 grams of added sugar for women, and less than 150 calories or 38 grams of added sugar for men. 

Considering that one teaspoon is equal to roughly four grams of sugar, a woman would be able to afford about six teaspoons of added sugar, and a man can eat about nine teaspoons of added sugar. Just to illustrate, 12 ounces of one popular soda contains just over nine teaspoons of sugar, or 39 grams. This exceeds the highest recommendation for the entire day for men and women.

Cutting Back on Sugar

Nine teaspoons may seem like a lot, but some people use the same amount of added sugar just in their morning coffee. Also, if you look at the labels for any packaged foods you eat, this number of added sugar will quickly rise above recommended values. Keep this in mind: The recommended value is given just to avoid major health issues; it is not about how to look and feel your best. 

Also, avoiding sugar is tricky because it can hide very well—it goes by many other names, such as cane syrup, molasses, sucrose, maltodextrin, and others. If you see multiple names like these on a food label, you should consider another choice. You can also look for food labels that say “no added sugar.”

Believe it or not, over 70 percent of U.S. adults take in more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar—from things like boxed goods, baked items, cereals, and sodas. Luckily, there are easy ways to minimize your intake of added sugar. 

One of the easiest changes to make is simply to avoid drinking excess sugar. If you can avoid sugary sodas, juices, and energy drinks, you can easily avoid a ton of added calories.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.