Sugar Smarts

By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D., Best Life lead nutritionist

Sugar intake is a tough thing to measure, believe it or not. Of course, you can always look at the label of your cookie, candy or fruit juice to learn how much sugar each food contains-but once you learn what that number is, you're left wondering if that's high or low. That's because there's no agreed-upon guideline as to how many sugar grams you should be consuming each day. Unlike total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sodium and most other entries on the nutrition label, there is no "percent daily value" for sugar.   

I'm going to help you tease this all out so that next time you check a label, you'll be much more sugar savvy. Where to begin? Let's start with a little Sugar 101. Sugar is a form of carbohydrate, and the white crystals in your sugar bowl, the high fructose corn syrup in a soda, or the blood sugar in your body are all forms of sugar. Some sugar, like glucose, is made up of just one molecule, and acts as a building block for other sugars. For instance, white table sugar is a molecule of glucose combined with a molecule of another sugar, called fructose (also found in fruit).  Milk sugar (lactose) is a glucose molecule combined with another single-molecule sugar, called galactose.

In general, it's most important to pay attention to added sugar, not naturally occurring sugar. Added sugar is the sugar you stir into your coffee, the brown sugar in your oatmeal cookie recipe, or the high fructose corn syrup in a soda. It's even in salad dressing and catsup. White sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave nectar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice sweetener, molasses, dextrose, maltose, and other calorie-containing sweeteners are all considered "added sugar." Naturally occurring sugar, on the other hand, is the sugar that's found naturally in fruit or milk, and the little bit of sugar in some vegetables. While your body can't tell the difference between the two, there is a big difference in the nutrients that tag along with each. Added sugar is devoid of nutrients, save for a smidgen in honey and molasses. But when you bite into an orange or drink a glass of milk, you're getting loads of vitamins and minerals.  

You should obviously look to limit your intake of added sugars because they are basically empty calories. Not surprisingly, if you eat sweets in place of nutritious foods, you'll wind up with a nutrient-poor diet. Even if you're eating a generally nutritious diet but are taking in too many high-sugar foods, like cookies, cakes, candy and soda you can easily overdo it on calories, which will lead to weight gain. (On the other hand, it's much harder to go crazy with calories when you're eating foods containing naturally occurring sugar. You'd have to eat seven peaches to get the 56 g of added sugar in just one Dunkin Donut's brownie. And all those peaches amount to is 268 calories, while the brownie, thanks to the starch and fat in addition to all that sugar, is 430 calories.)  Sure, you could theoretically gain weight on the higher calorie sources of  naturally occurring sugar, such as fruit juice and whole and two percent milk, but it's fairly easy to limit or avoid these few foods, unlike all the thousands of tempting foods containing added sugar.

So the Best Life recommendations for sugar are for added sugar only*. We modeled them after the current guidelines from the World Health Organization and the U.S. government old recommendations—to limit added sugar to 10 percent of total calories. (More recent U.S. recommendations do not give a specific percentage.) This is stricter than the Institute of Medicine's guidelines of 25 percent of total calories, which could promote a nutrient-poor diet. Still, we're not as strict as the recent American Heart Association guidelines, which recommend just four percent of daily calories from added sugar for people taking in 1,800 calories or fewer per day, and six to 10 percent of total calories for those on 2,000-plus calories daily.  

In the chart below, I've done the calculations for you—you'll find your daily sugar gram max for your daily calorie level. I've also converted the daily gram max into teaspoons of sugar, so you can get a sense of what you're eating. (A teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams and contains 16 calories.)  It probably comes to no surprise to you that Americans are eating a lot more sugar than what we're suggesting here. According to the most recent government surveys, Americans are eating about 22.2 teaspoons (89 g or 355 calories) daily; highest consumers are 14 to 18 year olds, who are averaging 34.3 teaspoons daily.

Knowing your added sugar limit is just part of the equation. The next step is to do some sleuthing to figure out whether the sugar in a food is added or naturally occurring. For many foods, like 100 percent fruit juice, it's obvious, but what about the 20 grams of sugar in a serving of raisin bran cereal-how much of that is found naturally in the raisins, and how much is sweetener added to the bran flakes, or coating the raisins? The same goes for a fruit-flavored yogurt-you can't tell how much is added and how much is lactose naturally found in yogurt. My advice in these cases is to assume half is added. And for cookies, cake, pastries, and candy, even if they contain raisins or other fruit, assume it's all added.

* If you have diabetes and must restrict your total daily carbohydrates, then you have to watch both naturally occurring and added sugar. You can have two fruit servings daily and two to three fat-free or one percent milk or yogurt servings daily (cheese counts as a protein serving because it's so low in sugar and other carbs). Your daily sugar allotment is lower than what's in the chart; we recommend no added sugar on 1,500 and 1,600 total daily calories, and 10 g for 1,700 and 1,800 calories, and 15 g for 1,900 and above.


Daily Calorie Allowance 1,500 1,600 1,700 1,800 2,000 2,500
Added sugar (g) 37 40 43 45 50 64
Equivalent teaspoon measurement 9 10 10.7 11 12.5 16

To do the calculation yourself, take 10 percent of your daily calories. For instance, if you're taking in 1,900 calories, your daily limit is 10 percent or 190 calories.  Now, divide 190 by 4 (because there are 4 calories per gram of sugar), which comes to 47.5 grams.