Sugar: How sweet … or is it?


Studies over the past 30 years have shown that high consumption of added sugar, especially from sugary drinks, contributes to obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The most recent data in 2018 CDC show that 42.7% of American adults are obese (defined as a body mass index of 30 kg / m2 or larger). Additionally, childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States, with an obesity prevalence of 19.3% and affecting approximately 14.4 million children and adolescents aged 2 to 19. One in two American adults has diabetes or prediabetes, and about 50% of adults have cardiovascular disease.

What is the potential benefit of a national sugar reduction program?

A recent study published in the journal of the American Heart Association Circulation examined a model to estimate changes in cardiometabolic disease (particularly type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity) and health care costs if sugar reduction goals were initiated. In 2018, the US National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative (NSSRI) proposed voluntary national sugar reduction targets. For each of the 15 food categories, the target reduction in average sugar content was 20% at the end of 2026, with the exception of sugary drinks, which were to be reduced by 40%. The model examined diet data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2011 to 2016, sugar-related illnesses from numerous other research studies, and health-related costs. .

The results of the study estimated that a government-backed sugar reduction policy could prevent an estimated 2.5 million cardiovascular disease events (strokes, heart attacks and cardiac arrests); 500,000 cardiac deaths; and 750,000 cases of diabetes in the lifetime of adults in the United States between the ages of 35 and 80. The data also showed that this reduction in sugar could save $ 160.88 billion in net costs from a societal perspective over a lifetime.

Natural sugars and added sugars: what’s the difference?

There are natural sugars naturally in foods such as milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose). Any product containing milk (yogurt, milk and cream) or fruit (fresh, dried and frozen) contains natural sugar.

Added sugars include all sugars or caloric sweeteners that are added to food or drinks during production or preparation (such as putting sugar in your coffee or adding sugar to your cereal). The main sources of added sugars in the American diet are sugary drinks, desserts, and sugary snacks. Examples of desserts and sweet snacks are cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, ice cream, frozen dairy desserts, donuts, sweet buns, and pastries. Added sugars include natural sugars such as white sugar, brown sugar, and honey, as well as other chemically made caloric sweeteners (such as high fructose corn syrup).


The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women limit added sugar to no more than 6 teaspoons per day (24 grams) and men limit added sugar to no more than 9 teaspoons per day (36 grams).

Tips for reducing added sugar

  • Read the food label on nutrition facts. The food label now lists “added sugars” under total carbohydrates. Be sure to review the number of grams per serving to determine how much added sugar you are consuming. Trying to limit your intake of added sugar to the AHA recommendation is a place to start.
  • Review the list of ingredients on the food item. There are at least 55 names of sugar listed on food labels. They can be listed as honey, sucrose, dextrose, maltose, cane syrup, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, carob syrup, corn syrup solids, dehydrated cane sugar, fruit juice, invert sugar. , grape sugar, mannitol, raw sugar, rice syrup, sorbitol, beet sugar, etc. The ingredient list is another source of information to help identify strongly sweetened products.
  • If you regularly use added sugar in your coffee or tea, try halving the amount. You don’t have to make the turkey cold. Gradually getting used to less sweet foods and drinks is an adjustment. Remember that a teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams of added sugar, so this should be included in your daily limit.
  • If you have a really sweet tooth, write down how many sweets or foods with high amounts of added sugar you eat per day or per week. For example, if you eat a piece of candy twice a day – a cereal bar in the afternoon and ice cream in the evening – start by negotiating with yourself to limit yourself to one candy a day. In two weeks, you might consider reducing your candy to five days a week instead of seven days, and so on. Reducing gradually in this way can help you not feel totally deprived of your treat and feel guilty when you have one, because it is part of your plan.
  • If you drink sugary drinks, you can start by reducing portion sizes: for example, going from a 12-ounce serving to a 6-ounce serving. Another strategy is to replace these types of drinks with flavored seltzer water, or water with a dash of lime or a dash of fruit juice.

The impact of added sugar on our health and healthcare costs is staggering. At the individual level, there are a few strategies to start the journey to reducing added sugar in our own diets. At the societal level, supporting a government-sponsored reduction in added sugar can help save lives and dramatically lower healthcare costs.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of the last revision or update of all articles. Nothing on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your physician or other qualified clinician.


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