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The Sweet Side: Sugar Q&A

By Jennifer Patzkowsky, MS, RDN, LDN, Publix Corporate Dietitiancup of coffee

So you understand it's best to consume sugar in moderation. But how much is too much? And what exactly does added sugar mean? Should you substitute sugar with other sweeteners? Find the answers to these questions and more in our helpful sugar primer.

How much do Americans consume?
On average, Americans get about 13 percent of their total calories from added sugars, mostly from sugar-sweetened beverages (soft drinks, fruit drinks, coffee and tea, sports and energy drinks, and alcoholic beverages), and snacks and sweets (desserts, candies, sugars, jams, syrups, and sweet toppings). Beverages account for almost half (47 percent) of all added sugars that the U.S. population consumes.

How much should we consume?
Based on USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day. When added sugars in foods and beverages exceed 10 percent of calories, an eating pattern with enough dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals may be difficult to achieve while staying within calorie limits.

What is the difference between added sugars and naturally occurring sugars?
Both added sugars and naturally occurring sugars contain calories.

  • Added sugars are those that are added during the processing of foods to improve flavor, appearance, or texture, or are packaged as such, and include sugars, sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit juices.
  • Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit or milk, are not added sugars.

What about natural sugars?
When counting added sugars, there's no distinction between natural sugars like maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, or fruit juice concentrate, and refined sugars or high fructose corn syrup. All concentrated sweeteners have about the same amount of calories and are counted as added sugar, regardless of whether they are liquid or granular, organic, raw, natural, or refined.

Some sweeteners, such as honey or molasses, have trace minerals and vitamins that may be viewed as an advantage, but the values are so low that they can't really be considered sources of nutrients. For example, you would have to consume 40 cups of honey a day to reach your daily iron requirements!

What about nonnutritive sweeteners?
Nonnutritive sweeteners don't contain calories and include saccharin (Sweet'N Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). Despite controversy surrounding these sweeteners, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized them as safe to use. Other sweeteners, such as stevia and monk fruit extract, are derived from plant-based sources, yet are still processed. No matter which type of sweetener you decide to use, moderation is a good rule of thumb.