If you’ve been cutting back on soda, cakes, cookies and candy to trim your daily sugar intake, you’re off to a good start. But it’s the small amounts of added sugars found in many of the foods we eat regularly that can keep your sugar intake much higher than you think. And many processed foods containing added sugars don’t even taste sweet.
The average American eats about 22 teaspoons of added sugars every day.
That’s a lot of sugar when you look at current guidelines for health. The American Heart Association currently recommends that women limit total added sugars to 6 teaspoons, or 25 grams, per day, while men stick with 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams, per day.
It’s also important to separate the term added sugars from naturally-occurring sugars in the diet like fructose in fruit or lactose in dairy. All humans have a “sweet tooth” hardwired in the brain, a function of receptors, or sensors, on the tongue that recognize a sweet taste as pleasant. Added sugars provide the same stimulation to these receptors as fruit.
Because sugar and fat interact so closely in foods, another challenge to finding hidden sugars is that many foods with added sugars don’t taste particularly sweet. The combination of sweet and fat provides a product that just tastes good. So, the “taste test” for figuring out added sugars is not reliable.
The only way to know for sure is to read the nutrition label on the back of the label. Skip the front panel, which is less regulated, and often has convincing wording like “lower in sugar” — compared to what? — or “made with organic honey," which is still sugar.
What are added sugars?
1. Ingredients that end in “-ose” — fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose.
2. Ingredients that have “sugar” in the name — brown sugar, cane sugar.
3. Ingredients that have “syrup” in the name — rice, maple, corn, evaporated cane syrup.
4. Ingredients that are other forms of sugar — but not healthier, like honey, molasses, agave.
5. Ingredients with “fruit” in the name that are processed — fruit concentrates, fruit nectars.
How to calculate teaspoons and calories of added sugars
Nutrition labels list grams of added sugars, an abstract term for most people. Think of the “rule of 4” when it comes to figuring this out.
To convert grams of sugar to teaspoons: Divide the number of grams by 4; for example, 16 grams of sugar equals 4 teaspoons.
To convert grams of sugar to calories: Multiply the number of grams by 4; for example, 16 grams of sugar equals 64 calories.
And a single teaspoon of sugar? That’s 4 grams of sugar and 16 calories.
Added sugars in everyday foods
The added sugar content of products can vary, and, often the serving size is a lot bigger than the “suggested”. There are lots of options from which to choose, including making it yourself, so be an informed consumer.
Serving size: ½ cup
Added sugars: 8 grams (2 teaspoons)
Smart swap: Choose a brand with lower added sugars. Or start with canned tomatoes for a quick sauce in under 30 minutes.
Flavored plant milks (like soy and almond)
Serving size: 1 cup
Added sugars: 16 grams (4 teaspoons)
Smart swap: Choose unsweetened plant milks. Add a low-calorie sweetener or 1 teaspoon of sugar, along with a flavored extract like vanilla.
Oatmeal/Whole Wheat Bread
Serving size: 1 slice
Added sugars: 4 grams (1 teaspoons)
Smart swap: Look for no sugar added breads and rolls.
Serving size: ¾ - 1 ½ cups
Granola (2/3 cup: 16 grams - 4 teaspoons)
Raisin Bran (1 ½ cups: 26 grams - 6.5 teaspoons)
Honey Nut Cheerios (1 ½ cups: 14 grams – 3.5 teaspoons)
Special K (1 ¼ cup: 14 grams – 3.5 teaspoons)
Smart swap: Limit cereals with dried fruits and eat fresh fruit instead. Limit versions of healthy cereals with “honey” or other sugary-words in the name. Mix a sweeter cereal with a low-sugar option, like Cheerios. Or take an unsweetened cereal, and add 1 teaspoon of a sweetener of your choice. You’ll still be cutting out 2-4 teaspoons.
Serving size: 6 ounces
Added sugars: 12-14 grams (3 – 3 ½ teaspoons sugar)
Smart swap: Choose plain yogurt and add fresh or frozen fruit. Or add one teaspoon of your favorite jam or jelly. You’re still saving 2 teaspoons of sugar.
Serving Size: 2 tablespoons
Added sugars: 8 grams (2 teaspoons)
Smart swap: Downsize your serving — one big squirt is a tablespoon, and one teaspoon of sugar, and most people are using way more than 2 tablespoons at a time, and multiple times a day. Look for no-sugar-added ketchup, with a more tomato-y taste.
Serving size: 2 tablespoons
Added sugars: 4 grams (1 teaspoon)
Smart swap: Measure how much dressing you’re actually using. The suggested 2 tablespoons often underestimates what’s poured on. Look for a no-sugar-added option, or make your own basic version with oil and vinegar.
Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D is the NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.