With sugar, how much is too much?

by SARA on May 31, 2011

Lemon Yogurt CakeYou’ve probably noticed that sugar’s been getting a pretty bad rap lately.  For weeks now, this video of Robert Lustig, an expert on child obesity at the University of California, San Francisco and a subsequent New York Times Magazine cover story have been making the rounds.

In a nutshell, the links argue that both sugar and high fructose corn syrup are much more harmful than other substances because they contain high levels of fructose (50% or more), which is metabolized primarily in the liver (as opposed to other similar compounds like glucose, which are metabolized by every cell in the body). When we eat more sugar than the liver can keep up with metabolically, it starts converting the fructose directly to fat, which experts think can trigger insulin resistance. We release insulin is to control blood sugar, so when our bodies stop responding to insulin, blood sugar goes up, and diseases like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and (because insulin helps existing tumors grow) even cancer can follow.

Scary stuff. But what’s important to keep in mind is that this doesn’t happen always and without fail. If you’re eating a healthy diet, some sugar is just fine. Even helpful, as Gretchen Reynolds noted in a recent blog post for the Times. Apparently, in athletes, some fructose can actually help the liver recover from a workout. All this, of course, leads me to this question: For those of us who are active and trying to eat well, where’s the cutoff? How much sugar counts as acceptable–and how much is too much?

A bit of nosing revealed that there are precious few recommendations for sugar. The USDA says that added sugars should make up only six to 10 percent of your daily calories. But this is pretty useless information, especially since both added and naturally-occurring sugars are lumped together on labels.

Other things that aren’t taken into account on nutrition labels: 1) The ratio of fructose, compared with less harmful sugars like glucose (sometimes called dextrose), lactose, etc. 2) How all the sugars are being delivered. If they’re coming in an apple, for instance, our bodies needs to break them down first (and the fiber helps slow down the process even further). If they’re in juice, it’s straight into our systems.

Conclusion: Here again the “look for whole foods, from natural sources,” rule comes in quite handy. Scanning an ingredient list to see where the sugars on the food label may be coming from is another useful one, as is taking note of how much metabolism-regulating fiber you’re bundling in there.

But now, on to the bigger question. On her excellent Food Politics blog nutritionist Marion Nestle has this to say about a 2009 American Heart Association report on sugar habits: “Americans eat way too much, it says, a whopping 22 teaspoons a day on average.  Let’s work this out.  A teaspoon is 4 grams.  A gram is 4 calories.  So the 275 calories in that default 20-ounce soda [bottle] you picked up from a vending machine come from nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar – close to the average right there.”

I really like Nestle’s visual, almost gut-instinct approach. By dividing the grams of sugar any food has by four, you can get a number with some real-world references. Elsewhere, Nestle’s said that anything with 14 grams of sugar or above should be treated as a dessert. Thinking of it as 3.5 teaspoons, that more than makes sense.

In terms of additional specifics, I also asked nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg for her take. Consistent with the above, she says, ”the sugar answer really depends on what food and what form (meaning natural sugar verses added). For example, fruit naturally contains roughly 15g per serving (but I consider this healthy sugar).” Below, she’s sketched out four useful guidlines:

Yogurt: “I recommend keeping to under 15g. Yogurt naturally has about 8-10g. A fage 2% plain greek yogurt has 8g but greek yogurt tends to be lower in sugar than other brands.  In this case, anything over 15g is considered more of a dessert.”

Cereal: “Try to keep it under 6g. Once you head into the double digits I consider it closer to a dessert.”

Bars: “I recommend keeping to under 12g sugar.”

General: “Once you head into the 20g of sugar, that is getting high. Typical coke can=27g”

…To put this all in even more context, here are a few blogs and sites I thought did a great job of breaking out some of the finer points:

1) On Foodtrainers, nutritionist Lauren Slayton tackles the topic of fruits (which are quite high in fructose) for dieters.

2) See how some common foods rate in this WebMD piece.

3) For some creepy sugar cube visuals, check out SugarStacks.com.

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Claire June 6, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Excellent article!!!! I love hearing about studies on people’s eating habits, I find it very eye-opening! The sugar subject hits home with me as well, as I find it extremely addictive (all those studies comparing cocaine to sugar don’t surprise me), and I know how harmful it can be. My personal answer to how much is to much would be : ”One is too many, a thousand never enough”. In my case, this is true. Any sweet treat with added artificial sugar makes me extremely moody, hyper, tense and anxious, in minutes. So anyway, thank you so much for sharing this!

Dawn June 10, 2011 at 5:01 am

Thanks for the post – this was helpful. For the last few years I’ve stayed further and further away from processed foods – they generally taste terrible in comparison to what you can cook yourself anyway.

SARA June 16, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Claire, I’ve never heard that quote before–I love it! (I can absolutely relate…)

SARA June 16, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Dawn, thanks so much for the feedback. I agree about the processed foods tasting worse (especially, I notice, after you read the ingredient list. Shudder…).

Annie July 6, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Great article, Sara! Interesting–especially the question that you use as a headline! It seems clear that lots of processed sugar is not so great for you, but it would be puritanical to forswear it entirely! Taking the Stephanie Middleberg approach further, I like to make sure, as much as possible, that the foods I eat that are *not* delicious desserts have no added sugar or corn syrup in them (as for fructose in fruit, I’m just not going to worry about it!): plain unsweetened yogurt, black coffee (which is just how I like it), unsweetened oatmeal, no soda pop (again, no sacrifice for me, because I’ve always found it gross-tasting), no snack bars (which I think of as basically less tasty Snickers!). And relish the occasional delicious dessert! You might as well really enjoy the sugar you’re getting!

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