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Sugar: How Much is Too Much?


The newly released 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for the first time recommend limiting added sugars in foods and beverages to no more than 10% of total daily calorie intake. Sugar adds calories but no essential vitamins or minerals, which makes it difficult to meet daily nutrient needs without going overboard on calorie intake.1

What are added sugars?

There’s a difference between sugar naturally occurring in food, like sugar in fruit and milk, and added sugars. Plain, unflavored milk contains lactose, the type of carbohydrate naturally found in milk, which is technically a sugar. Fructose is the type of sugar found naturally in fruit, and when you eat fresh fruit, or frozen or canned fruit without added sugar, you’re also getting the benefit of fiber, vitamins and minerals.1

Specific examples of added sugars you’ll see on food ingredient lists include brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, cane juice, evaporated corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, crystal dextrose, glucose, liquid fructose, sugar cane juice, fruit nectar, trehalose, and turbinado sugar.1

The two main sources of added sugar are sweetened beverages and sweet snacks. Sweet tea, sweetened coffee, lemonade, fruit drinks, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened milk contribute 47% of our added sugar intake. Candy, cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, donuts, sweet rolls and ice cream provide 31% of added sugars.2

Sweetened juices such as juice drinks often contain no more than 25% juice; the rest of the ingredients are water and sugars. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young children drink no more than 4-6 oz of 100% fruit juice per day, and limit or eliminate sweetened juice beverages.1

Why limit added sugars?

Added sugars provide extra calories which contribute to obesity. Research shows that people who eat a diet lower in added sugar have less risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer. The Dietary Guidelines encourage an eating pattern based on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, dairy, protein foods and healthy types of oils to obtain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, optimal amounts of fiber, and lower amounts of sodium and added sugar.1

What does 10% of calories from added sugar look like?
One teaspoon of table sugar equals 4 grams of sugar on a food label. One 12-oz can of Coke contains 39 grams of sugar, which is equal to almost 10 teaspoons of table sugar.

  • 1000-1200 calorie diet:  no more than 25-30 grams, or 6-7 teaspoons of added sugar per day
  • 1400-1600 calorie diet:  no more than 35-40 grams, or 9-10 teaspoons of added sugar per day
  • 1800-2000 calorie diet:  no more than 45-50 grams, or 11-12 teaspoons of added sugar per day1

How do I know how much added sugar is in foods?

The current food label lists sugar by grams of weight, but the amount listed is the total of both naturally occurring and added sugar. Look for a change in the food label in the next year that will separate added and naturally occurring sugar. Until then, check the list of ingredients for sources of added sugar. The higher up on the list sugar appears, and the more often sugar appears, the more added sugar in that food. Compare foods without added sugar to sweetened foods to see the difference. For example, one container of plain Greek yogurt contains 4 grams of naturally occurring sugar from lactose. One container of flavored Greek yogurt can contain 17 grams of sugar. The difference between 17 grams of sugar in the flavored yogurt and 4 grams of sugar in the plain yogurt is 13 grams of added sugar, about half the daily requirement for someone eating 1200 calories per day.1

The USDA’s SuperTracker at https://www.supertracker.usda.gov/ has a database of over 8000 foods and was recently updated to identify grams of added sugars in these foods. Enter the name of a food and the amount, and discover the grams of added sugar.3

Reading food labels to choose foods lower in added sugar, and using less sugar at home in beverages and added to foods in cooking are two practical ways to improve your diet and your health by using less added sugar.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. What Are Added Sugars? http://www.choosemyplate.gov/what-are-added-sugars
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. SuperTracker. https://www.supertracker.usda.gov/

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