It’s clear that added sugar is a problem for many Americans. But what matters most are the context and quantities. Excessive sugar intake is usually a marker for a diet heavy in processed foods and high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium. But research now indicates that it boosts risk independently of overall diet.
If you eat mostly whole foods (as opposed to processed foods) and rarely consume sugary soft drinks, you may well be getting less than 10 percent (or even 5 percent) of your daily calories from added sugar. Some simple steps can help reduce sugar intake, such as limiting your consumption of sugar-laden yogurt (add your own fruit to plain yogurt) and choosing breakfast cereals with little or no sugar (and more whole grains). Still, if you are generally careful and the rest of your diet is healthful, consuming small amounts of added sugar is unlikely to be harmful.
You needn’t worry about foods naturally containing sugar, such as fruit (though fruit juice should be limited) or milk. One frustrating thing about nutrition labels is that they don’t differentiate between naturally occurring and added sugars. The line for “sugars” under “total carbohydrates” in the Nutrition Facts box lumps them together. For many foods, that’s pretty useless. How would you know that about half of the 24 grams of sugar in 4 ounces of commercial sweetened applesauce has been added? Or that half the 25 grams of sugar in your healthy-looking 6-ounce low-fat vanilla yogurt has been added (that’s three extra teaspoons of sugar)?
Limiting added sugar will be easier to do in the future, since food companies will have to list it separately on the FDA’s new nutrition labels, which were proposed in 2014 but won’t go into effect for a few years.
Societal intervention is also needed, beyond new recommendations to limit added sugar. States and localities should follow the city of Berkeley’s lead and tax sugar-sweetened beverages, which are by far the largest source of added sugar in the American diet. What’s more, some public health experts have called for the FDA to remove sugar from its “generally recognized as safe” list of ingredients. That would prevent food companies from adding unlimited amounts of sugar to their products.