The Sugar You're Eating Without Even Knowing It

ASColgan Photography/Getty Images

It has been reported that the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Given that the American Heart Association recommends that the intake of added sugar not exceed 6 teaspoons daily for women and 9 teaspoons daily for men, it is easy to see how added sugar leads the charge when it comes to major causes of the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

What Is Added Sugar?

The term “added sugar” refers to and includes all sugars that are added to food, rather than those that occur naturally.

Naturally-occurring sugars, for instance, are those such as fructose and lactose, which are found naturally in fruit and milk, respectively. Added sugars, on the other hand, are those that are added to foods during manufacturing or processing, during preparation, or at the table before eating.

Added Sugar Goes By Many Names

Because food manufacturers have found many different methods and sources by which to add sugar to foods ranging from ketchup to cereal to soft drinks, it can be difficult to identify added sugar in the ingredients lists on food labels. However, by knowing many of the names that indicate a sugared or sugar-derived ingredient, you can be an informed consumer and opt for the products without added sugar.

The most common names for added sugar include any ingredient ending in “-ose”--such as maltose, dextrose, sucrose, fructose, lactose—as well as high fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey, cane sugar, corn sweetener, evaporated cane juice, raw sugar, syrup, and fruit juice concentrates.

What Foods Contain Added Sugar?

According to the American Heart Association, major sources of added sugars in our diets are soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and milk products (such as ice cream and sweetened yogurt), and cereals. Most sweetened beverages and fruit drinks contain so much added sugar, in fact, that they have been referred to as “liquid sugar” by some experts.

The cereal aisle, for example, has become notorious for the amount of added sugar that can be found in the products there. It is not uncommon to find cereals from well-known brands that contain added sugar as their single largest ingredient, making up 50 percent or more of the contents of the cereal box.

Another major source of added sugar that has recently come under fire is soft drinks. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average 12-ounce can of cola contains over 8 teaspoons of sugar! So, by drinking just one small soft drink, a woman would have already far exceeded her recommended daily sugar maximum (of 6 teaspoons), and a man would have nearly reached his (of 9 teaspoons).

Sugary Beverages May Literally Age You

As if all this were not enough, a recent study showed that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas was associated with shorter​ telomeres (which are a marker of aging--longer telomeres, simply speaking, are a marker of youth, while telomere shortening is an indication of aging).

This, in turn, was associated with higher risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The study investigators concluded that "regular consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas might influence metabolic disease development through accelerated cell aging." In other words, in one more twist to the added-sugar saga, drinking sodas could age your cells--and, therefore, you.


Johnson R et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2009.

Moss M. Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. New York: Random House. 2013.

Caprio S. Editorial: Calories from soft drinks—do they matter? N Engl J Med 2012; 367:1462-1463.

Leung CW, Laraia BA, Needham BL, et al. Soda and cell aging: associations between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and leukocyte telomere length in healthy adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Am J Public Health 2014 Oct 15:e1-e7. [Epub ahead of print]

Continue Reading