Sweet Tooth Gone Bad: Why 22 Teaspoons Of Sugar Per Day Is Risky

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We've written lots lately about the potentially addictive qualities of sugar and the public policy efforts to limit consumption.

Now comes a new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which finds that Americans who consumed the most sugar — about a quarter of their daily calories — were twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who limited their sugar intake to 7 percent of their total calories.

To translate that into a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, the big sugar eaters were consuming 500 calories a day from sugar — that's 31 teaspoons. Those who tamed their sweet tooth the most, by contrast, were taking in about 160 calories a day from sugar — or about 10 teaspoons per day.

Unfortunately, most Americans have a sugar habit that is pushing toward the danger zone.

"The average American is consuming 22 teaspoons a day. That's about three times what's recommended," says Laura Schmidt of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.

Now, we should point out, we're not talking fruit here. Researchers did not include the sugar naturally occurring in fruit or milk. Instead, the study focused specifically on the risks of added sugar — the refined sugars and corn syrups added to foods such as baked goods and sugary sodas.

So, how much added sugar is OK?

Well, the American Heart Association advises that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar daily. This is about 100 calories. And men, no more than 9 teaspoons, or about 150 calories from sugar.

The World Health Organization says people should get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from sugar.

And the last time the federal government weighed in on sugar was in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which make only a broad recommendation to reduce consumption of added sugar.

So how best to reduce sugar?

Some steps are fairly obvious. For example, eliminating one 12-ounce can of sugar-sweetened soda can cut about 9 teaspoons of sugar.

But other common sources of added sugar can take you by surprise. For example, this morning I ate a small, 4-ounce cup of low-fat organic peach yogurt. I chalked it up as a very healthful breakfast, but when I looked at the nutrition label, it had 17 grams of sugar.

"You just shot most of your wad" for the day, Schmidt points out.

So, yeah, swap those sweetened yogurts for plain yogurt. A typical 6-ounce serving of vanilla yogurt has about 6 teaspoons of sugar — which is about as much as a regular size Snickers bar.

Bottom line: Read the labels. Most nutrition labels list sugar in grams. Four grams of sugar is equivalent to about one teaspoon.

And, don't get forgot to count sugar if you're eating out. There can be lots of sugar added to breakfast foods.

For instance, stopping at Starbucks to pick up a blueberry muffin with your latte? That muffin, according to the Starbucks website, contains 29 grams of sugar, or roughly 7 teaspoons.

And an Apple Crumb doughnut at Dunkin Donuts will set you back 49 grams of sugar — that's more than a day's worth of added sugar.

There's a lot of variability in baked goods. For instance, another option at Dunkin Donuts, the Cocoa Glazed doughnut, has much less sugar, 13 grams.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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