There is a big difference between added sugar in, for example, processed foods (such as cereals or sauces) and natural sugar (which is present in fruit or milk). Products that have added sugar should be limited, as they easily make us fat, while products with naturally occurring sugar (such as fruit or milk) can be eaten in larger amounts, as they contain other important nutrients (apart from sugar) that are needed for our health.
How much sugar in a diet
Different health organizations give their recommendations on the amount of sugar that is considered safe for daily consumption. They refer to added or free sugar only, not to naturally occurring sugar. The difference between added and free sugars is that added sugars include monosaccharides (for example glucose or fructose) and disaccharides (for example sucrose) added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, while free sugars are sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates.
What does it mean for our diet and us? It means that we need to pay special attention to processed food, ready-to-eat meals and sweetened products, and fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. No matter how healthy fruits are, in order to limit sugar consumption, the amount of juices should be limited. Fruit concentrate is simply sugar used lavishly by the food industry.
What do the recommendations say?
The American Heart Association recommends that added sugar be limited to 6 teaspoons (1 teaspoon of sugar weighs 4 grams) per day for most women and 9 teaspoons of sugar per day for most men. This recommendation considers only added sugar.
According to the new guidelines issued by the World Health Organization, free sugars (added sugars, fruit juice, fruit concentrate, and honey) should be limited to less than 10% of daily energy intake, and further reduced to below 5% to provide additional health benefits.
If we adopt the 5% limit and assume that an average person eats 2,000 calories per day, 5% is 100 calories. Knowing that 1 gram of sugar equals 4 calories, our 100 calories will equal 25 grams of sugar, which is approximately 6 teaspoons of free sugars.
Assuming that women usually eat a 2,000-calorie diet and men a 2,500-calorie diet, the free sugar limit will be 6 teaspoons for women and 8 teaspoons for men.*
The amount of added sugar and free sugar is the same, while added sugars do not include fruit juices—so having a big glass of fruit juice may use up your daily limit of added sugars.
If you love fruit juice and have a glass of it with breakfast, its sugar content may be high enough to use up your added sugar daily limit. That would mean no more processed food or sweet treats on that particular day.
The label on the left comes from a small can of pineapple juice. The serving, which is a glass here, will be as much as a woman’s daily limit.
All the limits stated above are calculated for 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets, which are typical for an average woman and man, but the diet depends on your size, age, and your level of activity. The daily sugar limit for young tall active men will be higher.
Obviously, it is very easy to eat over those limits if you do not monitor the sugar in the food you eat. Reading the labels may be essential in order to know how much we eat. For clever tips on how to read labels, go here.
What are the solutions?
The best solution would be to avoid products that have plenty of added sugar—industrial food. Especially avoid industrial food that pretends to be a healthy choice, such as whole grain cereals, energy bars, low-fat snacks, and “healthy alternative” products which are healthy only by name.
How to make wise choices?
If you decide to start eating true food—food that is unprocessed and without added substances such as sugar—there is one simple rule you can apply, and it comes from a famous American writer, Michael Pollan: “Do not eat food that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize”.
In other words, during the time when our grannies were still around, food was prepared in completely different ways. If we wanted some pesto pasta, both of the main ingredients, pesto and pasta, would be prepared from scratch: wheat flour, eggs, and water would be used to make pasta, and a simple combination of basil leaves, oil, nuts, and some cheese would produce fresh and delicious pesto.
Moreover, follow these simple rules:
- Instead of soda and fruit juice, drink water and fruit teas (without added sugar) and mineral water with mint leaves. All of these options have almost no sugar and may even have a beneficial influence on your body. They hydrate you, flush out toxins, and rejuvenate your skin. Mineral water is rich in basic elements such as sodium, calcium, and potassium, and is great for the acid-alkaline balance of your body. Lemon water is similarly alkaline, so it balances the pH into more alkaline, which is healthier. Avoid distilled water; here’s why.
- Avoid sweet snacks such as biscuits, bars and cakes. Instead have some nuts, dry fruit, crunchy veggies such as carrot, cucumber or cherry tomatoes.
- If you decide to buy sweet snacks, try to choose a small packet, bag, or portion. The industry has adopted many different marketing tools to convince you to buy more. It’s always cheaper to buy more, but it’s worse for your health and body. Spend more, eat less; as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The first wealth is health”.
- Instead of adding sugar to your coffee and tea, try non-nutritive sweeteners and gradually limit their intake in the long run.
- Replace standard bread with whole meal, the darker the better (unless the color comes from molasses only and not whole grains). The best solution is to bake your own, as industrial bread has far too many unhealthy components. The recipe for healthy bread will be available in our Lab section soon!
- Replace store-bought bread spread with your own homemade one. Recipes will be available in our Lab section soon!
- Read labels—learn how to read them here.
- Stay away from cereals and healthy or energy bars. Prepare your own!
*In the case of a man it would be 5% out of 2,500 calories (which is the typical daily energy need for a man) gives 125 calories, which equals 32 grams of sugar, or approximately 8 teaspoons.
Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015.