The good news is that these sources of added sugar are not the ones that most nutrition experts and health organizations are taking fire at, even though they’ve gotten swept up in the anti-sugar crusade. “There are people who are very health-conscious coming to me worried about the added sugar in tomato sauce or yogurt,” Dr. Tewksbury says. “But that’s not the source of added sugars that major organizations and dietitians are worried about.”
What experts are sounding the alarm on is the foods and beverages that offer sugar (and calories) in high concentrations, and not much else. Added sugars in and of themselves are not unhealthy—in fact, they’re the same as naturally occurring sugars in terms of their chemical structure and how the body processes them. It’s the large amounts of added sugar and the nutrition-lacking foods people regularly consume them in that are an issue.
“These products that are basically nothing but added sugar in high concentrations and little other nutritional value are the sources of the vast majority of the added sugar individuals consume,” Dr. Tewksbury says.
According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines2, created by both the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the top offenders by far are sugary beverages (sodas, fruit drinks that are not 100% fruit juice, sports drinks) and processed sweets (cookies, candies, pastries, ice cream). This absolutely does not mean you can never have these items or should feel guilty about enjoying the hell out of them when you do have them! Sugary foods and drinks can absolutely be part of a healthy lifestyle. Health and nutrition experts are generally most concerned about people consistently bypassing daily sugar intake recommendations in a way that can put their health at risk.
What are the daily sugar intake recommendations?
The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines advise capping your daily added sugar intake at 10% or less of your total calories. Each gram of sugar equals 4 calories, so if you eat about 2,000 calories a day (we’re using this general number just for math’s sake), the recommendation is to aim for under 200 calories worth of sugar every day, or 50 grams.
Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping consumption of “free sugars” (which includes everything that falls under added sugars, plus sugars from 100% fruit juice) at 10% or less of caloric intake. But WHO takes it a step further by saying that reducing intake of free sugars even further, to 5% or less of caloric intake, would offer additional health benefits.
No matter the exact number you go by, the general spirit of these recommendations is clearly that “most of us could probably stand to cut back a little bit,” as Dr. Tewksbury puts it.
What are the health concerns around added sugar?
These numbers may seem arbitrary, so let’s go over why these guidelines exist.
Broadly speaking, these recommendations are based on the fact that (a) high added sugar intake over time is associated with negative health outcomes, and (b) most people are eating high amounts of added sugars. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), consuming too much added sugar is associated with cardiac and metabolic health issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. That said, multiple studies have found that some of the strongest evidence for the relationship between sugar consumption and weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease applies to added sugar that comes from sugar-sweetened beverages only. And according to the Dietary Guidelines, sugar-sweetened drinks account for over 40% of the average American’s added sugar intake.