Let’s say you’re a woman, aged 54, who just played tennis as you do every Monday and Wednesday, and on your way home you stop for a small soda. By the time you finish that drink, you’ll have consumed about 50 percent more added sugar than you should for the entire day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That means that anything else you eat with added sugar — cereals, crackers, snacks, treats, ketchup, frozen meals, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, and so on — puts you even more over the top. Everyone pretty much knows they eat too much sugar during the day. The surprise is how much too much and in how many foods it’s hidden.
According to a new report by the AHA, Americans eat way too much sugar — an average of 22 teaspoons a person daily. That’s almost half a cup every single day. If someone handed you a half cup filled with cane sugar, it’s unlikely that you’d even think of downing the entire amount, and yet, if you’re a typical American, you probably eat double that on your more indulgent days. In fact, teens eat 34 teaspoons daily, on average, or almost three-quarters of a cup. And note that these figures do not include sugars from natural sources, such as fruits and fruit juices. This only counts sugars added to food.
How much sugar should you have at the upper limit? The AHA has established specific guidelines for adults based on how much you can burn off calorie-wise, totally ignoring sugar’s other detrimental qualities. The amounts vary wildly, depending on your age, sex, and activity level. For instance:
- Active men aged 21-25 can have up to 18 teaspoons, maximum
- Sedentary men aged 46-50: up to nine teaspoons
- Moderately active women aged 51-55: up to five teaspoons
- Sedentary women aged 71-75: up to three teaspoons
Plus, the report says, the average woman shouldn’t consume more than 100 calories per day from added sugars, and the average man should limit added sugars to 150 calories per day. For some perspective, that’s less than you’ll get in a bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and spice. “Excessive consumption of sugars has been linked to several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients,” says the AHA statement.
Unfortunately for those who rely on the AHA guidelines, the problem with all that extra sweetness goes far beyond weight gain, and even tooth decay. “Excessive consumption of sugars has been linked to several metabolic abnormalities and adverse health conditions, as well as shortfalls of essential nutrients,” says the AHA statement. Studies show that high-sugar diets boost triglycerides and increase risk of stroke, hypertension, and heart disease. And of course, eating a sugar overload depletes the pancreas, builds up cellular resistance to insulin, and increases diabetes risk.
Where do all the extra sugars come from? Certainly sodas and candy drive up the numbers, with a 12-ounce soda adding eight to 12 teaspoons. A bag of Skittles adds another 12 teaspoons, and a cup of ice-cream piles on 10 more. But it’s obvious that desserts and soft drinks would up the sugar quota. What if you never have dessert, if you eat “healthy” packaged foods? Well, if you have a small fruit-flavored yogurt for breakfast, you’ll pick up six teaspoons. Raisin Bran adds another six. Fruitopia in a 20-oz serving gives you 18 more. Add on another 3.5 from baked beans, another four from your low-fat salad dressing, and another six for a snack of 1/3 cup of dried cranberries.
In other words, it’s easy to accumulate added sugar without even opting for “sweet” foods. Sugar keeps sneaking into prepared foods, disguised by names such as maltose, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and so on. But for the average American, it’s soda that’s really the culprit, according to lead author Rachel Johnson of the University of Vermont. It’s the number one source of added sugars in the diet, fueling the $115 billion revenues that sodas rake in each year. In the three decades from 1970 to 2000, soft-drink consumption increased by 70 percent in the US. Given that a regular can of soda averages 135 calories from sugar, and that amount exceeds the allowable amount for women according to the AHA, it’s no wonder we’re getting increasingly fat.
Predictably, the sugar and soft-drink industries found creative ways to double-talk around the AHA report. The American Beverage Association, for instance, issued a statement claiming that, “Like many foods, soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are a source of calories, but in and of themselves, they are not a unique risk factor for obesity or other negative health outcomes — including heart disease.” Being generous, I guess we could call that a point of view.
The Sugar Association then ramped up the nonsense, accusing the American Heart Association of “[issuing] a scientific statement titled ‘Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health’ without a higher standard of evidence to support its contentions and therefore misleading the average consumer.” They go on to say that “every major systematic review of the body of scientific evidence exonerates sugar as the cause of any lifestyle disease, including heart disease and obesity.” (Perhaps it’s just me, but I have to think that claiming that “every major systematic review” exonerates sugar would qualify as a tad hyperbolic.) Finally, they resort to finger-pointing, noting that the European Food Safety Authority and an expert panel convened by the Institute of Medicine in 2002 did not set an upper limit for added sugars.
Seems rather a desperate response, perhaps compounded by the fact that a sugar shortage looms on the horizon. According to a report just issued by the USDA, because so much corn formerly used for corn sweetener has been getting repurposed for ethanol, and because of strict import limits on sugar, “the United States will end the next fiscal year with less than 13 days’ worth of sugar on hand, unless imports are increased…our nation will virtually run out of sugar.” What sweet irony that these two reports — the one from the AHA and one from the USDA–came out at about the same time, and that the sugar shortage, should it occur, will naturally take care of the sugar overload problem the AHA cites.
Thank goodness we have artificial sweeteners to fall back on.