Why take on sugar? Why now?
Added sugars in processed foods are a primary driver of the obesity epidemic and have direct metabolic effects that raise the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart and liver diseases. They also promote dental disease. So much sugar is added to the products found on grocery shelves that the typical American consumes about 18 teaspoons of added sugars per day. Men and women across the lifespan are consuming more sugar than is healthy, with most consuming more than is recommended by the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the World Health Organization (WHO). Changing the makeup and marketing of food products to make it easier for Americans to reduce their sugar intake to recommended levels, while increasing the consumption of healthful food, is critical to preventing chronic diseases and saving lives.
Now is the time to act. Scientific evidence of the harm caused by added sugars is strong and growing. News stories have begun sounding the alarm. Some Americans are getting the message that sugar is unhealthy and are cutting back, but consumption remains high along with health impacts associated with overconsumption.
How much sugar is too much?
The United States leads the world in consumption of sweeteners and is number 3 in the world in consuming sugary drinks. All this sugar has consequences. The U.S. also has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.
While overall sugar consumption has begun to decline since 2000, it is still astronomically high.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 now recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day, in line with previous WHO recommendations. This is equal to about 12 teaspoons of added sugars per day. The American Heart Association sets an even lower limit, recommending men consume no more than nine teaspoons per day and women no more than six.
Where are we getting all this sugar?
In order to get the biggest bang for the buck for our advocacy efforts, it is important to know the answers to the following questions:
- Which foods and beverages are the leading sources of added sugars in the American diet?
- Where do people acquire most of these foods and beverages?
Foods and beverages that are leading sources of added sugar in the American diet
Sugary drinks account for nearly half (46%) of the added sugars in the American diet and are the largest source of added sugars for all age groups; they are far and away the largest contributor to sugar intake among people ages 12–50 years. [See this section for more on the special health risks of sugary drinks]
Grain-based desserts are the second largest source of added sugars, contributing 10 percent or more of added sugars across the lifespan. These desserts are consumed in disproportionately large quantities by children ages 6–11 years and by people over age 50. Candy and breakfast cereals contribute relatively high proportions of added sugars among children ages 6–11 years. Among adults over 50, dairy desserts contribute disproportionately to sugar consumption.
Where do we acquire most of these foods and beverages?
These days we can acquire sugary foods and drinks almost anywhere: At work, in our government buildings, at schools, in fast food restaurants, corner stores, supermarkets, and even home improvement stores. To begin to get a handle on all the sources of sugar that policies might address, it is helpful to have a sense of the relative importance of the places where we might acquire sugar.
Data on purchase location show that foods and beverages obtained in stores are by far the primary sources of sugars. Store-bought added sugars account for 65-70 percent of added sugars, depending on age, with the leading sources being sugary drinks, grain-based and dairy desserts, ready-to-eat cereals, and candy.
The total amount of added sugars from meals and beverages from restaurants, school cafeterias, and other sources is considerably lower. For example, the amount of added sugars contributed by school meals among the 12- to 19-year-old age group is 0.9 teaspoons/day, or about 15 calories per day.
Great sources for local data on health impacts
To tell your own story about the rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other conditions associated with added sugars, look to these data sources.
- Find state, county, and city data on adult health outcomes and interactive maps using Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data a widget from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the 500 Cities Project.
- Community Commons offers public access to thousands of data layers that allow mapping and reporting for small geographic areas, including for obesity and diabetes.
- National, state, and county diabetes data and statistics including data on prediabetes, diagnosed diabetes, risk factors for diagnosis, and risk factors for complications.
- Find Obesity and overweight data and statistics for adults, adolescents, and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) 2- to 4-year-olds for states, territories, and some localities. This site offers state rankings based on obesity data.
- Youth Online includes recent data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), including obesity and soda consumption at the state level and for some localities.
- Users can view county-level maps of heart disease and stroke by racial/ethnic group, along with maps of social and environmental conditions and health services, for the United States or for a chosen state or territory.