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Added Sugars in the American Diet

Check Your Sugar Source


Sodas, cakes, pies, cookies, breads, cereals, granola bars, and condiments. All of these foods have one thing in common: added sugar. Sugar, especially added sugar, is a significant component of the Standard American Diet (SAD). It’s a pantry staple in most households and is readily available in stores across the country. However, sugar hasn’t always been as ubiquitous as it is today. During World War II, sugar was hard to come by and was considered a treat not to be consumed in excess. 

Today, sugar is not only readily available, but it’s overconsumed. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, sugar consumption increased 39% per capita between 1950 and 2000. And, the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans reports that the average American eats up to 13% of total calories from added sugars alone. That’s equivalent to about 270 calories per day. That increase has been linked to the development of many chronic diseases facing millions of Americans today including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Sugar Swaps

  • Swap fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt with plain yogurt and add fresh fruit.
  • Swap fruit juice for the whole fruit – apple juice for an apple, orange juice for an orange.
  • Swap sugary cereals for lower sugar, higher fiber options.
  • Swap grain-based desserts with fruit-based desserts lower in sugar such as chocolate-dipped strawberries or grilled peaches and pineapples.

Sugar Sources Matter

The source of sugar is key when considering its impact on health. Some foods have naturally occurring sugars. Fructose found in fruits and lactose found in dairy are examples. Foods containing naturally occurring sugars also contain fiber, vitamins, and nutrients known to have positive effects on health. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, and dairy are all part of a healthy diet and naturally occurring sugars are a component of some of those foods.

For example, a strawberry contains fructose, but it also has fiber, vitamin C, and other important nutrients. When a strawberry is eaten, it takes time to digest, which leads to a slower release of the naturally occurring sugars into the bloodstream. Same goes for an apple or an orange. When eaten as a whole fruit, the combination of sugar with fiber slows the digestion and absorption.

Fruit juices have fiber removed, which will lead to natural sugars being absorbed more quickly and in a greater volume. This leads to more sugar intake when compared to eating a piece of whole fruit.

When sugars are added to foods or consumed in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, it leads to excess sugar intake. It’s that excess that is linked to the development of chronic disease. Nearly half of the added sugars consumed by the average American are from sugar-sweetened beverages. The recommended intake of added sugars is less than 10% of total calories.

Top sources of added sugar in the diet:

  • Soft drinks
  • Fruit drinks
  • Sport and energy drinks
  • Coffee and tea
  • Snacks and sweets

New Updates

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration announced updates to the current Nutrition Facts Panel. The updates include the addition of added sugars. Currently, the label lists total sugar which includes both naturally occurring sugars and those added to foods. The change is an effort to clear confusion about added sugars in foods; however, it won’t take effect until 2018. Until then, take action by comparing products and choosing those with less added sugar. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and limit grain-based desserts and sugary cereals.

Allison Knott, MS, RD, LDN

Allison Knott, MS, RD, LDN

Registered Dietitian, Nutrition Communication and Wellness Consultant

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