By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D., Best Life lead nutritionist
Have a sweet tooth? Then you’ll love to sink it into this bit of good news: Sugar, in moderation, doesn’t seem to be harmful. If you’re like me, you’re breathing a giant sigh of relief—after all, some of the joy would drain from my life if sugar left it!
How much can you get away with? Before I give you a number to shoot for, you need to learn two sugar lessons. The first is what “sugar” really is: sweet-tasting carbohydrates that contain calories (that excludes artificial sweeteners). Some common examples are sucrose, the white granules you stir into coffee; high fructose corn syrup, which has a similar chemical makeup as sucrose; fructose and glucose in foods like fruit and in honey; and lactose, the sugar in milk.
Next, you have to learn to determine if a sugar is added or naturally occurring. Naturally occurring sugars, like those found in fruit, milk and yogurt, are generally not a problem (unless you have diabetes or pre-diabetes). The vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in these foods more than make up for any ill effects of the sugar.
Added sugar, on the other hand, is a big problem for most of us. That’s because added sugar is “empty calories,” meaning it contains plenty of calories but no nutrients. In excess, it can make you fat and increase your risk for metabolic syndrome, a condition that sets you up for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It might even make you stupid, as I recently reported. And for some people, cookies, candy and other sweets are addictive.
So, how much added sugar can you get away with? There’s no consensus among major health organizations; I go with the World Health Organization’s recommendation—it’s somewhere in the middle of the range—of no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar. (Again, this does not include naturally occurring sugar.) Here’s what that translates to in sugar grams (g) and teaspoons.
Sometimes it’s easy to discern the added sugar in a food—for instance, it’s all 10 grams of sugar on the label of a box of chocolate chip cookies. But when a food contains both added and naturally occurring sugar, it’s impossible to tell what percent is added. How much of the 18 grams of sugar in a cup of raisin bran comes from the raisins and how much is the “sugar” listed on the ingredient list? Same for sweetened yogurts, ice cream, fruit smoothies and the like. My very quick-and-dirty way of guesstimating: Assume half is added. And if you don’t want to keep a running sugar gram tally going all day, just limit your daily treat calories to 150—that pretty much ensures that you’re capping it at 37 grams daily.