sugar cubes and apricots on a scale

The Shocking Truth About How Much Sugar You're Eating

It's way more than you thinkā€¦and enough to swear off soda for good.

June 18, 2015

A teaspoon of the stuff might make your medicine go down, but exceeding your recommended daily sugar intake could lead to obesity, tooth problems, heart disease, and not-so-healthy eating habits.

And for those reasons, the World Health Organization (WHO) has just announced that it is cutting its recommended sugar intake for adults in half, from the original 10 percent of total daily calories to five percent. For a normal weight adult, that's about 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, per day.


Of course, that's total sugar, and the American Heart Association (AHA) has said that people need to make a distinction between naturally occurring and added sugars when it comes to daily sugar intake. The average American consumes around 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar every day, and both the WHO and the AHA note that we should really be eating a fraction of that amount. The AHA says that adult women should get 5 teaspoons (20 grams) of sugar per day, adult men 9 teaspoons (36 grams), and children 3 teaspoons (12 grams). To put that in perspective, a can of soda alone can have as many as 40 grams, or about 10 teaspoons of sugar.

The AHA guidelines, published in a 2009 issue of the journal Circulation, make the point that added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup or ordinary table sugar added to sodas, breads, and other processed foods, are likely responsible for the increase in calorie consumption and the subsequent rise in obesity of the past few decades.

Related: Seven Surprising Reasons To Give Up Sugar

"Naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains don't need to be avoided; they make up part of a healthy diet," says Rachel K. Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, associate provost, and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont in Burlington, and one of the experts who came up with the AHA guidelines. Of course, knowing how much sugar you should be eating is completely different from calculating what you're actually eating. "The Food and Drug Administration doesn't require that nutrition labels list the amount of naturally occurring sugars separate from the amounts of added sugars, making daily intakes of added sugar difficult to estimate," notes Johnson. So their guidelines are for total sugar intake, since it's difficult to parse out what's been added, with the caution that you should avoid added sugars first and worry less about sugars found in fruits and other whole foods.

"We're not saying that you should eliminate sugar from your diet or that you can't have sugar-sweetened foods," she says. But when you can't stay within your recommended sugar intake, you need to make up for it with extra exercise. Over the past 30 years, according to the AHA, we've consumed an average of 150 to 300 more calories per day, 50 percent of which come from beverages, while our physical activity levels remain unchanged. "Rather than waste your sugar intake on sodas and other empty calories, use it in a way that enhances the flavor and palatability of already nutritional foods like flavored yogurt or flavored milk," Johnson adds.

The best way to cut added sugars out of your diet is to limit processed foods as much as possible, and satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit. And while it's important to avoid added sugars in processed foods, you should also limit the amount of sugar you add at the table, whether it's table sugar (4 grams of sugar per teaspoon), maple syrup (4 grams per teaspoon), or honey (5.6 grams per teaspoon). Make a practice of this, and you won't need to spend so much time staring at food labels and counting sugar grams. But since that's not always possible, we compiled a list of a few common processed food items, and their average levels of total and added sugars, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Database.

Plain Bagel

5.05 grams of sugar, 4.8 of which are added

Whole-Wheat Bread (One Slice)

5.57 grams of sugar, 5 of which are added

Regular Sodas

8.97 grams of sugar, all of it added

Fruit Punch

11.29 grams of sugar, 4.4 of which are added

Bowl Of Corn Flakes

6.11 grams of sugar, all of it added

Fruit-Flavored Yogurt

19 grams of sugar, 11.4 of which are added

Italian Salad Dressing

8.85 grams of sugar, 6.9 of which are added

Fruit Cocktail (Canned In Light Syrup)

13.93 grams of sugar, 6.4 of which are added

Smooth Peanut Butter

9.22 grams of sugar, 3.1 of which are added

Granola Bars

21.8 grams of sugar, 20.4 of which are added

Low-Sodium Spaghetti Sauce

11.57 grams of sugar, 6.5 of which are added