disease, food, human conditions

Sugar: The Hidden, Bitter Truth

Our bodies are programmed to enjoy consuming sugar, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that most people in the U.S. eat too much of the sweet white stuff. But what might come as a shock is just how much we consume – the answer, in short, is way too much. Not only is it likely causing some obvious health conditions – such as obesity and diabetes – but eating lots of sugar has been linked to other conditions too, including Alzheimer’s, dementia, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, and much more. The implications are terrifying.

Different types of sugar, going clockwise from the top left: white refined sugar, unrefined sugar, brown sugar, and unprocessed sugar cane. (Image credit: Romain Behar)

Sugar has different names for its various forms – sucrose, glucose, fructose, galactose, lactose, and others ending in -ose – but these chemical compounds, for the most part, are similarly processed in the body. And too much sugar in the body can be a bad thing. But how much is “too much”? Unfortunately, the average American is probably eating easily more than twice the daily maximum recommended amount of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that, at most, a man consumes no more than 36 grams (or about 9 teaspoons, since there are about 4 g in 1 tsp.), and a woman should eat 24 g (or about 6 tsp.) or less, of sugar each day. But most Americans eat around 88 g (or 22 tsp.) to nearly 120 g (30 tsp.) of sugar each day! And teens and children eat even more.

Where is all this sugar coming from? Unsurprisingly, most of it is coming from soft drinks and fruit drinks, which is also where we get a lot of our calories. But a lot of sugar is in foods that probably most people don’t suspect as having tons of the white stuff. Below is a table that includes a lot of common foods in the U.S. along with their sugar nutritional information (by searching for it directly on Google and other websites). (Keep in mind that some of these are examples for this general type of food – it can vary a lot from one specific food product to another.) You can see that some of these foods don’t have much sugar, but others are packed full of it. Because serving sizes can vary so much – not only in their size, but also in the amount of total calories they have – the percentage of calories that are from sugar (out of the total calories for that food) are also shown. This gives an idea of whether a food item is mostly sugar, or whether it has a lot of sugar but this is only a small percentage of its total calories. Overall, some key observations can be made:

  • Some of the foods highest in sugar are generally desserts, non-diet soft drinks, fruits, syrup, and fat-free foods. But other foods we don’t usually think of as having a lot of sugar in them, like milk, do contain lots.
  • The foods with the least amount of sugar are generally meats, eggs, non-heavily-processed grains, vegetables (mostly leafy greens), legumes, fatty dairy products (e.g., butter), cheese, and drinks other than soft drinks.
  • Some foods, like peanuts, appear to have a fair amount of sugar for their serving size, but when the total amount of calories for that serving size is taken into consideration, they really don’t have much sugar. Point being – if you’re keeping an eye on the total number of calories you eat, you’re not going to be getting a ton of sugar from peanuts.
Common Food Serving Size Amount of Sugar Percent Calories from Sugar
Bread 1 slice 1.6 g 3.5
Chocolate cake 1 slice 20 g 3.9
Apple pie 1 slice 13 g 20.9
Cereal, apple cinnamon Cheerios 3/4 cup 10 g 33.3
Pizza 1 slice 3.8 g 5.3
Lettuce 1 cup, shredded 0.3 g 24.0
Broccoli 1 cup, chopped 1.6 g 20.6
Carrots 1 cup, chopped 6 g 45.3
Tomatoes 1 cup, chopped 4.7 g 58.8
Corn 1 cup 6 g 18.2
Vegetable soup 1 cup 5.2 g 9.9
White rice 1 cup 0.1 g 0.2
Brown rice 1 cup 0.7 g 1.3
Peanuts, raw 1 cup 6 g 2.9
Apples 1 medium 19 g 80.0
Bananas 1 medium 14 g 53.3
Oranges 1 medium 12 g 77.4
Grapes 1 cup 15 g 96.8
Lemon 1 medium 1.4 g 32.9
Yogurt 1 cup 10 g 24.0
Milk 1 cup 13 g 50.5
Butter 1 cup 0.1 g 0.0
Heavy whipping cream 1 cup 0.1 g 0.1
Sour cream 1 tbsp. 0.4 g 7.0
Cheese 1 cup, shredded 2.6 g 2.5
Eggs 1 0.6 g 3.1
Bacon 1 0 g 0.0
Beef, ground 1 lb 0 g 0.0
Chicken 1 cup 0 g 0.0
Coffee, no sugar added 1 cup 0 g 0.0
Tea 1 cup 0 g 0.0
Soft drink (coke) 12-oz. 39 g 111.4*
Soft drink, diet (coke) 12-oz. 0 g 0.0
Wine 5 fl. oz. 1.2 g 3.9
Beer 5 fl. oz. 0 g 0.0
Maple syrup 1 tbsp. 14 g 107.7*
Jelly, strawberry 1 tbsp. 12 g 96.0
Ketchup 1 tbsp. 3.7 g 77.9
Salad dressing, fat free, Italian 1 cup 20 g 73.4
Regular salad dressing, Italian 1 cup 20 g 11.7

* Values greater than 100% for percent calories from sugar are most likely due to rounding errors when calculating grams of sugar and/or total calories for that food.

But wait – there are different types of sugars, so not all of these grams of sugars from different foods are equivalent, are they? It’s true that different foods are made of different sugars: the white sugar we use in baking is sucrose (from beets and sugarcane), the sugar that’s in milk and other dairy products (like milk and cheese) is lactose, the sugar in fruits is fructose, and the most common sugar is glucose. (High fructose corn syrup is a mixture of glucose and fructose.) But the body mostly breaks all of these down into glucose and uses them in that form (in a process called glycolysis). (Specifically, sucrose is broken down into glucose and fructose, and lactose turns into galactose and glucose. Glucose is the most efficient form for use in glycolysis, but galactose is also easily used. However, fructose can either go directly through glycolysis, or it can skip a regulatory enzyme in the pathway and get turned into fat instead, so this is actually a reason to lay off on the fructose.) Clearly even fruit shouldn’t get a free pass when it comes to counting sugar. Ultimately, sugar is sugar.

And excess sugar in our bodies is definitely not a good thing. There’s no nutritional benefit for having it all in there, and in fact it’s been linked to a wide variety of medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, acne, depression, headaches, fatigue, skin irritation, stiff arteries, negative behavior changes, cardiovascular disease, and recently Alzheimer’s and dementia. And, what’s worse, there’s good evidence to suggest that sugar addiction is real and obese animals cannot taste sugar as well, causing them to eat more sweets.

Taking all of this together, it is shocking and shameful that nutrition labels on foods are not required by the FDA to list sugar as a percent of the daily value, as they are listed for other components of a food. Hopefully this will change so that consumers can make more informed decisions about the foods they want to eat.

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