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If you're trying to be healthy in this new year, you may be doing a lot of counting - counting your steps, your calories, maybe you salt intake. Well, according to new research, you should likely add one more thing to that checklist: sugar.

NPR's Allison Aubrey explains.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: For breakfast this morning, I had a quick cup of yogurt on the go, which I tend to think of is a pretty healthy start. But it turns out that my low-fat peach yogurt had a lot more sugar than I realized.

LAURA SCHMIDT: Sugar is hidden in 77 percent of packaged foods.

AUBREY: That's Laura Schmidt, a professor in the School of Medicine at U.C., San Francisco. She says food companies add sugar to all kinds of processed foods, and very few of us realize how much we are getting. My little cup of yogurt had 17 grams of sugar, according to the nutrition label.

SCHMIDT: You had your yogurt this morning, you just shot most of your wad for today - 17 grams.

AUBREY: That's about four teaspoons. And according to the American Heart Association, women should be eating no more than six teaspoons of added sugar each day; men, no more than nine teaspoons.

Now, this doesn't include the sugar found in fruit or in milk, which occurs naturally. So who's paying attention to this advice? Schmidt says not many of us.

SCHMIDT: The average is American is consuming 22 teaspoons a day. That's about three times what's recommended.

AUBREY: And how is this collective sweet tooth harming us? Well, a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds sugar does more than just pack on the pounds.

ROBERT MERRITT: Sugar is an important factor contributing to heart disease and stroke in this country.

AUBREY: That's Robert Merritt, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is a co-author of the new paper. The study found that Americans who consumed the most sugar - upwards of 30 teaspoons a day, or a quarter of their daily calories - were about twice as likely to die from heart disease compared to those with limited sugar to about 10 teaspoons or less each day.

MERRITT: And when it adds out, sugar really accelerates that risk.

AUBREY: On the positive side, Merritt says if you cut out just one soda a day or a candy bar or, in my case, sugary yogurt, you can eliminate six to eight teaspoons of sugar in one easy step. And this could make a real difference to your risk.

MERRITT: When you start counting it, it's amazing how quickly it adds up.

AUBREY: So how best to get the eat-less-sugar message out there? Well, UC-San Francisco's Laura Schmidt says with the new federal dietary guidelines being drafted this year, this is the opportunity for policymakers to weigh in and create a federal standard or guideline for sugar consumption.

SCHMIDT: We have one for sodium. We've got them for trans-fat. We have them for total calories. We've got it for everything but sugar.

AUBREY: Currently, the only federal advice on sugar is the broad recommendations to reduce consumption. But Schmidt says it would be helpful for Americans to be told more precisely just how much sugar is OK.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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