There are no recommendations about how much natural sugar you should eat in a day. But what about added sugar?
From the age of 2 onward, we shouldn’t get more than 10% of our daily calories from added sugar.
So, for someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that works out to about 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
In this article, we describe the types of sugar and what experts say about how much to have. We also look at where added sugar lurks, what names it goes by, and what can happen if you regularly eat too much of it.
Sugar intake recommendations
The guidelines for added sugar depend on your age. They don’t apply to the natural sugar in foods like fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, or dairy.
Your body uses the sugar in these foods for energy and to feed your brain. Plus, the vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and antioxidants in these whole foods make them a key part of a healthy diet.
Instead, we should look out for how much “added” sugar we’re eating.
Added sugars are any kind that manufacturers put in during processing. They might be granulated sugar, syrup, honey, or other substances.
Later on, we’ll look at different names for added sugar in ingredients lists.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that added sugar shouldn’t make up more than 10% of your daily calories. This is for people older than 2.
So, if you have a standard diet of 2,000 calories a day, it means having about 50 grams of added sugar (roughly 12 tsp) or less.
For kids younger than 2, they recommend avoiding added sugar altogether.
Recommendations from other research
Other organizations and experts have their own recommendations about added sugar — and free sugar.
While the definition can vary, “free sugar” typically refers to added sugar plus naturally occurring sugars in juiced or pureed fruits and vegetables.
Juicing or pureeing breaks down the structure of these foods, freeing the sugars from the plants’ cells. This makes the sugars easier to absorb than if you were eating an unprocessed form of the fruit or vegetable.
A recent review looked at several studies to investigate the effects of added sugar on our health. The researchers recommend having less than 25 g of free (including added) sugar per day, around 6 tsp.
They also recommend limiting sugar-sweetened beverages to about 200–355 milliliters a week, which is less than 1 serving per week.
Meanwhile, a group of scientists recently completed an assessment of sugars and their possible links to health issues for the European Food Safety Authority.
The group had hoped to determine how much added and free sugar is safe.
In the end, they could only conclude that we should try to eat as little added and free sugar as possible.
Finally, the American Heart Association (AHA) has published a statement about added sugars for children older than 2.
They found a link between the amount of added sugar that kids in the United States eat and the risk of cardiovascular disease. So, they recommend that children older than 2 consume less than 25 g (or 6 tsp) of added sugar a day.
Are there recommendations for people with diabetes?
If you have diabetes, you'll need to watch your added sugar intake. But there are no specific guidelines beyond those we mention above.
Main sources of added sugar
You can find added sugar in many processed foods. And drinks are another key source.
According to the AHA, sugar-sweetened drinks account for 47% of all added sugars in the standard adult diet.
Here’s a list of some things that usually contain added sugar:
some nut butters
some fruit juices
condiments, like barbecue sauce, ketchup, and teriyaki sauce
flavored milks and creamers
energy and protein bars
desserts, like cakes, cookies, donuts, and brownies
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How to spot added sugar
On a food or drink’s nutrition label, you can find the amount of added sugar, as well as the amount of natural sugar.
It’s a good idea to check the serving size, too, so you can figure out how much added sugar is in what you’re actually eating or drinking that day.
For instance, if half a cup of breakfast cereal has 10 g of added sugar, but you eat three times that amount for breakfast, you’re getting 30 g of added sugar in your bowl.
You can also spot added sugar on a product’s ingredients list. But sugar comes in many forms, so it can have a variety of names. Here are some examples:
brown rice syrup
evaporated cane juice
fruit juice concentrate
high fructose corn syrup
What are the risks of having too much sugar?
Too much added sugar can affect your teeth and your weight, as well as your cardiometabolic and brain health.
After you eat sugar, the bacteria in your mouth produce acid that wears down your tooth enamel. This can cause cavities.
Brushing your teeth after you eat something sugary can lessen this response, but the best defense is to limit the added sugar you eat.
Weight and heart health
Regularly having a lot of free sugar, including added sugar, can also have an unfavorable effect on your weight and heart health.
Added sugar doesn’t give us nutrients, just extra calories that can cause weight gain and reduce our heart health over time.
Large studies have associated a high sugar intake with a range of cardiometabolic diseases, including:
dyslipidemia, an unhealthy level of one of more blood fats
Some studies have found an association between eating too much sugar and having cognitive issues.
It may also have an unfavorable effect on our mental health.
Blood sugar control
Eating large amounts of sugar can lead to blood sugar spikes.
Some rise in blood sugar after a meal is normal, but consistently having high rises can be a cause for concern.
These regular spikes in blood sugar narrow your blood vessels and constrict blood flow, which can increase your risk of high blood pressure and other heart conditions.
ZOE runs the largest nutrition science study in the world. We’ve found that the way your blood sugar rises in response to certain foods is unique to you.
With ZOE’s at-home test, you can learn how specific foods affect your blood sugar and blood fat levels. You can also find out how healthy your gut microbiome is.
Tips for cutting back
When it comes to changing your routine, it’s best to start small and keep it simple. This way, it’s easier to stick to the changes and develop healthy habits.
Also, no foods should be off-limits. It’s fine to have some sugary cake as a treat once in a while. What’s important is how often you have these foods.
Here are some tips for eating less added sugar:
Combine carbs with healthy fats. This can soften your blood sugar response. So, if you’re having toast, adding some avocado can keep you feeling fuller for longer. It’ll also reduce your blood sugar peak, compared with having toast on its own.
Try to get enough sleep regularly. Some research points to a link between poor sleep and an increased added sugar intake.
Reduce portion sizes. If you’re craving ice cream, opt for less than usual.
Try smart food swaps. Some sweet foods, like fruit, have no added sugar. Snacking on them, or using them in baking, can satisfy your sweet tooth.
Read food labels. It can help you keep an eye on how much added sugar you’re having throughout the day.
ZOE’s research has shown that blood sugar responses to different foods vary a lot from person to person.
If you want to learn how your body responds, our personalized nutrition program can help. It can also show you how combining foods will soften your blood sugar responses and help you reach your health goals.
To learn more about how it works, you can take our free quiz.
For your overall health, It’s important to limit how much free sugar, including added sugar, is in your diet. The recommendations from experts vary, but most suggest having no more than 25–50 g of added sugar a day.
Added sugar is in many processed foods. Desserts and sodas aside, you’ll also find it in condiments, breads, snacks, and other processed products.
Regularly having more than the recommended amount can put you at risk of cavities, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
To reduce your added sugar intake, try making food swaps, reducing your portion sizes, and regularly getting a good night’s sleep.
Scanning nutrition labels and ingredients lists for added sugar will help you keep track of how much you’re getting.
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Human postprandial responses to food and potential for precision nutrition. Nature Medicine. (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0934-0
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Practical strategies to help reduce added sugars consumption to support glycemic and weight management goals. Clinical Diabetes. (2021). https://diabetesjournals.org/clinical/article/39/1/45/32080/Practical-Strategies-to-Help-Reduce-Added-Sugars
Relationship between added sugar intake and sleep quality among university students: A cross-sectional study. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8848117/
Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: Prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific Reports. (2017). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-05649-7