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Farida Y. Mohamedshah

Spoonfuls of Sugar
Imagine taking a canister of sugar out of your cabinet and eating 17 teaspoons of it throughout the day. While the thought may seem ridiculous, that’s how much sugar many Americans are consuming every day, though they might not realize it. 

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting the intake of added sugars to less than 10% of calories per day, however, most Americans exceed these limits. One gram of sugar provides 4 calories. Americans consume more than 13% of total calories (or almost 270 calories) per day from added sugars on average, with intakes among children, adolescents, and young adults particularly high. 

The Basics on Sugar

Sugars are the smallest and simplest type of carbohydrate. As with other carbohydrates, they contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Sugars are broken down into glucose, which is the primary source of energy for the body.  There are two types of sugars, and most foods contain one or more types of sugars.



A single molecular unit, small enough to be absorbed directly into the blood stream.

Sugar containing two monosaccharides linked together and broken down into two single sugars during digestion.

Most common: 

  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Galactose

Most common:

  • Sucrose (table sugar) = glucose + fructose
  • Lactose (milk sugar) = glucose + galactose
  • Maltose (malt sugar) = glucose + glucose

Naturally-Occurring vs. Added Sugars

Sugars are sweet-tasting compounds found naturally in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, and milk. In addition, sugars are added to many foods and beverages, such as cookies, pastries, ice creams, candies, puddings, pasta sauces, crackers, pizzas, regular sodas, energy drinks, fruits drinks, and flavored milks and yogurts, for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Increasing sweetness or balancing bitterness
  • Contributing to color and/or flavor development\
  • Providing body, bulk, and volume
  • Improving texture
  • Controlling freezing point and crystallization in ice cream, or boiling point in candy making
  • Preventing the growth of microorganisms and spoilage and preserving food products

While the reasons for adding sugars to food and beverages may seem reasonable, the reality is they add calories without contributing essential nutrients, making it difficult for individuals to meet nutrient needs while staying within their calorie limits.

Curbing Sugar Intake

Humans may have an inherent desire for sweet tastes, but there is something to be said for too much of a good thing. While it might seem unrealistic to completely cut sugar out of the diet, it is important to make healthier choices most of the time to reduce the consumption of added sugars. Some steps people can take to reduce the intake of added sugars include: 

  • Eating nutrient-dense foods that contain naturally-occurring sugars, such as fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) dairy products, fruits, and vegetables
  • Drinking water, milk, or unsweetened tea or coffee instead of sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Choosing fruit (fresh, frozen, dried, or canned in 100% fruit juice) as snacks or desserts instead of cakes, cookies, and pastries
  • Limiting or decreasing portion size of grain and dairy-based desserts and sweet snacks
  • Swapping sugary cereals for unsweetened cereals with fruit
  • Choosing unsweetened or no-added-sugar forms of canned fruits, fruit sauce, etc.
  • Resisting the urge to add sugar to coffee or tea, and if you must, try to add only one teaspoon
  • Consuming smaller portions of foods and beverages that are higher in sugars when you decide to splurge

Let the Nutrition Facts Label Be Your Guide

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new labeling requirements for the Nutrition Facts label on packaged food and beverage products that go into effect in January 2020 for most manufacturers. 

On the updated Nutrition Facts label, sugar is required to be listed as “Total Sugars,” which includes naturally-occurring and added sugar. In addition, “Added Sugars,” or the amount of sugar(s) added during food processing, are required to be listed separately in grams and as a percent Daily Value (%DV).  These requirements aim to help people monitor and reduce consumption of added sugars.

Added sugars are also listed in the ingredient list on product packaging. Ingredients are listed in descending order based on the amount, which means the closer they are to the beginning of the list, the higher the amount of that ingredient in the food. 

Some packaged food products may also indicate the amount of sugars on the front of the package.  However, the amount of sugars represents both naturally-occurring and added sugars, so people need to look at the Nutrition Facts label to decipher how much added sugars is present. 

Don’t Let the Name Fool You

While it may seem simple enough to look for sugar in an ingredient list, it is trickier than you think. Sugar goes by many names and is easily disguised if you don’t know what to look for. 

Examples of added sugars that may be listed as an ingredient include: anhydrous dextrose, agave, barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, cane juice, cane sugar, cane syrup, coconut palm sugar, concentrated fruit juice, confectioner’s sugar, corn sweetener, corn sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystalline fructose, date sugar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, granulated sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, icing sugar, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, maple sugar, molasses, muscovado, nectars (e.g., agave nectar, peach nectar, pear nectar), powdered sugar, raw sugar, rice malt, rice syrup, sorghum syrup, sucrose, superfine sugar, table sugar, trehalose, turbinado sugar, white granulated sugar, and yellow sugar.

Keeping an eye out and reducing the intake of added sugars could help improve the diet.  Evidence suggests that diets low in added sugars and high in nutrient dense foods and beverages are associated with a reduced risk of diet-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  Diets high in sugars—both naturally-occurring and added—could increase the risk of developing dental cavities.  Learn more about how the updated Nutrition Facts label can help people monitor and better manage sugar intake and watch our Food Facts video for a scientific overview of the role of sugar in foods and our diet. 


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans — Cut Down on Added Sugars. March 2016.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Nutrition Facts Label: Sugars. April 2016.

About the Author

Farida Y. Mohamedshah, MS, CNS, is the former director, nutrition science, food laws and regulations for IFT and currently senior vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs for the National Confections Association ([email protected]).

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