Nutrition Hotline

By Reed Mangels, Phd, RD

QUESTION: I heard that Americans should be eating less sugar. In practical terms, what does this mean? J.M., via email.

ANSWER: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 calls for an upper limit of 10% of calories from added sugar. This limit was developed because diets high in added sugars are often associated with an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and colon/rectal cancer1. In addition, sugars, even the ones we think of as "natural," like maple syrup and agave, are worth little or nothing from a nutrition standpoint. Eating a high-sugar diet means that other more nutritious foods are being neglected.

Added sugars are any sugars that are added to foods, either by consumers or by manufacturers. Manufacturers add sugar to many products, including cereals, beverages, and desserts. Sugars that are found naturally in foods, like the sugar in fruit, are not considered to be added sugars. The main sources of added sugars in U.S. diets are soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, cakes, pies, cookies, doughnuts, frozen desserts, and candy. Right now, it is challenging to figure out how much sugar is added to food, although looking for ingredients like sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and maple syrup on the ingredient list of a product can give you an idea of whether or not sugars have been added. Starting in July 2018, the amount of added sugars will have to be listed on product labels.

If you want to calculate how much added sugar is your upper limit, take your usual calorie level and divide by 450. The result is your upper limit for Tablespoons of sugar. For example, if you usually eat around 2000 calories a day, divide that by 450 and get 4 Tablespoons of sugar. Remember — this is any sugar added to food, from your breakfast coffee to your evening snack.

Does this mean no dessert, ever? Not really. You could choose (or make) desserts with less sugar. Many recipes can have the amount of sugar in them reduced by 25-50%. Having a smaller portion of a sugary dessert is another option. You could limit other sources of sugar — skip the soda at lunch, have a non-sugary cereal at breakfast, and eat fruit instead of a candy bar as a snack — in order to eat a vegan brownie and still stay below 10% of calories from sugar.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. 8th Edition. 2015.