Sweet Tooth Gone Bad: Why 22 Teaspoons Of Sugar Per Day Is Risky

Feb 4, 2014
Originally published on February 4, 2014 8:00 pm

We've written lots lately about the potentially addictive qualities of sugar and the public policy efforts to limit consumption.

Now comes a new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which finds that Americans who consumed the most sugar — about a quarter of their daily calories — were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who limited their sugar intake to 7 percent of their total calories.

To translate that into a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, the big sugar eaters were consuming 500 calories a day from sugar — that's 31 teaspoons. Those who tamed their sweet tooth the most, by contrast, were taking in about 160 calories a day from sugar — or about 10 teaspoons per day.

Unfortunately, most Americans have a sugar habit that is pushing toward the danger zone.

"The average American is consuming 22 teaspoons a day. That's about three times what's recommended," says Laura Schmidt of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.

Now, we should point out, we're not talking fruit here. Researchers did not include the sugar naturally occurring in fruit or milk. Instead, the study focused specifically on the risks of added sugar — the refined sugars and corn syrups added to foods such as baked goods and sugary sodas.

So, how much added sugar is OK?

Well, the American Heart Association advises that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar daily. This is about 100 calories. And men, no more than 9 teaspoons, or about 150 calories from sugar.

The World Health Organization says people should get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from sugar.

And the last time the federal government weighed in on sugar was in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which make only a broad recommendation to reduce consumption of added sugar.

So how best to reduce sugar?

Some steps are fairly obvious. For example, eliminating one 12-ounce can of sugar-sweetened soda can cut about 9 teaspoons of sugar.

But other common sources of added sugar can take you by surprise. For example, this morning I ate a small, 4-ounce cup of low-fat organic peach yogurt. I chalked it up as a very healthful breakfast, but when I looked at the nutrition label, it had 17 grams of sugar.

"You just shot most of your wad" for the day, Schmidt points out.

So, yeah, swap those sweetened yogurts for plain yogurt. A typical 6-ounce serving of vanilla yogurt has about 6 teaspoons of sugar — which is about as much as a regular size Snickers bar.

Bottom line: Read the labels. Most nutrition labels list sugar in grams. Four grams of sugar is equivalent to about one teaspoon.

And, don't get forgot to count sugar if you're eating out. There can be lots of sugar added to breakfast foods.

For instance, stopping at Starbucks to pick up a blueberry muffin with your latte? That muffin, according to the Starbucks website, contains 29 grams of sugar, or roughly 7 teaspoons.

And an Apple Crumb doughnut at Dunkin Donuts will set you back 49 grams of sugar — that's more than a day's worth of added sugar.

There's a lot of variability in baked goods. For instance, another option at Dunkin Donuts, the Cocoa Glazed doughnut, has much less sugar, 13 grams.

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If you're trying to be healthy in this new year, you may be doing a lot of counting - counting your steps, your calories, maybe you salt intake. Well, according to new research, you should likely add one more thing to that checklist: sugar.

NPR's Allison Aubrey explains.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: For breakfast this morning, I had a quick cup of yogurt on the go, which I tend to think of is a pretty healthy start. But it turns out that my low-fat peach yogurt had a lot more sugar than I realized.

LAURA SCHMIDT: Sugar is hidden in 77 percent of packaged foods.

AUBREY: That's Laura Schmidt, a professor in the School of Medicine at U.C., San Francisco. She says food companies add sugar to all kinds of processed foods, and very few of us realize how much we are getting. My little cup of yogurt had 17 grams of sugar, according to the nutrition label.

SCHMIDT: You had your yogurt this morning, you just shot most of your wad for today - 17 grams.

AUBREY: That's about four teaspoons. And according to the American Heart Association, women should be eating no more than six teaspoons of added sugar each day; men, no more than nine teaspoons.

Now, this doesn't include the sugar found in fruit or in milk, which occurs naturally. So who's paying attention to this advice? Schmidt says not many of us.

SCHMIDT: The average is American is consuming 22 teaspoons a day. That's about three times what's recommended.

AUBREY: And how is this collective sweet tooth harming us? Well, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds sugar does more than just pack on the pounds.

ROBERT MERRITT: Sugar is an important factor contributing to heart disease and stroke in this country.

AUBREY: That's Robert Merritt, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is a co-author of the new paper. The study found that Americans who consumed the most sugar - upwards of 30 teaspoons a day, or a quarter of their daily calories - were about twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to those with limited sugar to about 10 teaspoons or less each day.

MERRITT: And when it adds out, sugar really accelerates that risk.

AUBREY: On the positive side, Merritt says if you cut out just one soda a day or a candy bar or, in my case, sugary yogurt, you can eliminate six to eight teaspoons of sugar in one easy step. And this could make a real difference to your risk.

MERRITT: When you start counting it, it's amazing how quickly it adds up.

AUBREY: So how best to get the eat-less-sugar message out there? Well, UC-San Francisco's Laura Schmidt says with the new federal dietary guidelines being drafted this year, this is the opportunity for policymakers to weigh in and create a federal standard or guideline for sugar consumption.

SCHMIDT: We have one for sodium. We've got them for trans-fat. We have them for total calories. We've got it for everything but sugar.

AUBREY: Currently, the only federal advice on sugar is the broad recommendations to reduce consumption. But Schmidt says it would be helpful for Americans to be told more precisely just how much sugar is OK.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.



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