You May Be Eating More Sugar Than You Realize And That's Bad

Researchers have found too much of a sweet tooth can be bad for our hearts. But limiting sugar is sometimes easier said than done because it's added to so many foods. Some of us, without even realizing it, eat an entire day's worth of sugar before we leave the house in the morning.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Sugar - we all know from early childhood that it's not the best thing to eat, although most of us love it. But a new study hits home why researchers have found that too much of a sweet tooth can be really bad for our hearts. Still, limiting sugar is sometimes easier said than done because it's added to so many foods we eat. And some of us, even without realizing it, eat an entire day's worth of sugar before we ever leave the house in the morning.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about how much sugar can creep into our breakfast. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, there, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Before we get to the breakfast, let's talk about what the new study finds about the risks of sugar.

AUBREY: Sure. Well, simply put, the new study finds that the vast majority of us are consuming way too much of it. The typical American gets about 350 calories a day from sugar. That's three times what's considered healthy. And here's the alarming finding: Researchers who are publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine have found that Americans who consume the most sugar are twice as likely to die from heart disease, compared to those of us who limit sugar to about 160 calories a day. That's about 10 teaspoons.

MONTAGNE: How do we picture, though, how much sugar we're getting in our diet each day? Because a lot of it's hidden.

AUBREY: That's right. Well, this is the tough part, because food labels usually list sugar in grams. Most of us can't really picture a gram, but we can picture a teaspoon. I've got a yogurt here, this morning. It looks really healthy. It's organic. It's a 6-ounce serving. But when I look at the nutrition label, I see that there is, in this yogurt, 26 grams of sugar, and there's 4 grams to a teaspoon. So that's six teaspoons of sugar in here.

So if you consider that the American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons in a day - for men, it's up to nine teaspoons - this yogurt has put me at my daily quota. And the morning's not even over yet.

MONTAGNE: Yes. And if you have a banana now with your yogurt, that's another source of sugar, right? Or is that not part of the allowance?

AUBREY: Well, no, no. We need to be clear, here. The study is looking at added sugar - so what food manufacturers add to processed foods, whether it's table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. We also add sugar to our food as well, right? Say, honey on our toast, sugar in our coffee. But we're not talking about the sugar that's naturally found in fruit or vegetables or in milk.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, what do the authors of the paper say about why this added sugar is so risky?

AUBREY: Well, we've already known that sugar can pack on the pounds. And being overweight is clearly a risk factor for Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But even in the absence of a weight problem, it's clear that too much sugar can be a problem. It raises triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood; drives down good cholesterol. It increases inflammation in the body, and contributes to increased insulin resistance and high blood pressure. So multiple factors, here.

MONTAGNE: You've just shown us one way to watch our sugar, but is that the best way - looking at all the labels on the foods?

AUBREY: Right. Well, given that more than three-quarters of all processed foods out there contain added sugar, one way is just to cut back on the amount of processed foods you eat. And yeah, the other big way is to start reading those labels. If I had stopped at Starbucks on the way in this morning and gotten a blueberry muffin, I'd have consumed 29 grams of sugar. That's about the same amount of sugar as you'd find in a regular Snickers bar.

So, you know, it can be kind of surprising how much sugar is added to the food that we, you know, regularly consume for breakfast.

MONTAGNE: Well, Allison, thanks very much.

AUBREY: Well, thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Allison Aubrey.

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