Sugar has been blamed for a laundry list of health problems, including obesity and diabetes. But how do you know when you've had too much?
For the first time, Americans now have a benchmark: No more than 25 grams of added sugar a day for women and 37.5 grams for men, according to new guidelines established by the American Heart Association.
It's easy to soar past those limits. Downing just one 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola will give you 39 grams of sugar, exceeding your daily ration. But a lesser-known problem with sugar is that it's hidden in everything from soup to nuts. It's lurking in your lunch meat. It enhances bread. And if a low-fat product or frozen dinner tastes good, you may have added sugar to thank.
As a result, we're regularly ingesting an average of 88.8 grams of added sugar a day, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey — more than three times what the AHA recommends.
"When you really start paying attention to ingredients, you realize that sugar is everywhere," said New Jersey's Jen Maidenberg, 35, who has monitored her sugar intake for more than a decade to help treat allergies, asthma and irritable bowel syndrome. Among her pet peeves: "It kills me that Activia yogurt professes to boost your gut flora with probiotics, but then fills its yogurt with high amounts of sugar, defeating the purpose," she said.
Flooding your body with sugar often results in a blood sugar high — followed by a crash. Excess sugar intake also has been linked to inflammation, which can trigger a cascade of poor health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
But there's no recommended daily allowance for sugar because the body doesn't need it. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines vaguely advise us to "choose added sugars in moderation."
The AHA, however, felt consumers needed a specific target, said Rachel Johnson, lead author of the guidelines and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont. The limits, released in September 2009, were developed after considering the number of discretionary calories a typical American has left after fulfilling all nutritional requirements. So, a more active person would have more discretionary calories, said Johnson.
Of course, sugar occurs naturally in foods — lactose in milk and fructose in fruit, for instance. These natural sugars are less alarming because they're accompanied by nutrients. But nutrition labels don't distinguish between natural and added sugars, which are those used during processing. The guidelines address only added sugars.
That means it's important to look for sugar — and its euphemisms — in the ingredient list, said Karin Hosenfeld, a registered dietitian in Texas.
"If a food contains sugar or a simple carbohydrate derivative such as cane juice or high-fructose corn syrup as one of the top three ingredients, and has no other redeeming nutritional value, then it's not a healthy choice," she said.
Watch for words ending in "-ose," such as lactose or maltose; those are simply chemical names for sugar. Brown rice syrup, molasses, raw sugar and evaporated cane juice may sound healthy, but "a calorie is a calorie," said Johnson.
"Molasses or raw sugar still has 4 calories per gram, like any other sugar," said Johnson.
In addition to making foods sweeter, sugar is used to maintain color, texture and flavor, said Sean O'Keefe, a professor in the department of food science and technology at Virginia Tech.
Here are some of the unexpected places it pops up, with some specific product examples:
BREADS AND CRACKERS: Sugar can help smooth and balance the flavor, said O'Keefe, who is also a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists. "Adding sugar to bread is one way of ensuring it rises properly before baking."
CEREAL BARS AND GRANOLA: Sugar is added to help with taste, texture and to lower the water content, increasing the bars' shelf life, O'Keefe said.
TOMATO-BASED PRODUCTS: Sugar is used to give tomatoes the optimal sugar-acid balance and improve flavor if they're picked before they ripen. Tomatoes naturally have about 5 grams of sugar. Anything over that is likely added.
PEANUT BUTTER: Dextrose is added for taste and to stabilize emulsion, O'Keefe said.
DAIRY: Sugar is added for taste. Plain yogurt has about 12 grams of natural sugar; flavored can have up to 35 grams.
SHELF-STABLE MEALS, CANNED SOUPS AND FROZEN DINNERS: Virtually any packaged meal will have added sugar to help improve taste. Look for meals with less than 5 grams of added sugar.