by Marion Nestle
Feb 28 2013

Let’s Ask Marion: What’s The Recommended Daily Allowance of Sugar?

Here’s another one of those occasional queries from Kerry Trueman.  This one, posted at Huffington, is about FDA regulations for labeling sugars.

Trueman: I’ve just begun to sink my teeth into Michael Moss’s extraordinary food industry exposé, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, a book you’ve rightly lauded as a “breathtaking feat of reporting.” As Moss points out, the FDA is happy to give us guidelines on how much salt and fat to include in our daily diets, but–as a glance at any nutritional label shows–they’ve declined to make any recommendation at all about sugar.

Does this mean that:

(a) It’s OK to eat as much sugar as you like, or:

(b) There may be an unsafe level of sugar consumption, but the FDA just doesn’t have the resources to figure out what that level is, or:

(c) The FDA knows how much sugar we can eat without harming our health, but the food industry won’t let them tell us.

How is the average American supposed to interpret this absence of information?

Nestle: Whoa. Slow down. Let’s back up a minute. The FDA sets nutritional standards for food labels, but the Institute of Medicine (IOM) sets nutritional standards for dietary intake. To understand what’s happening with the FDA and food labels, we have to talk about what the IOM used to call the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) but now calls Dietary Reference Intakes (which, confusingly, include RDAs and other standards, such as Upper Limits).

In 2002, the IOM set standards for total carbohydrates–sugars and starches (which are converted to sugars in the body). In its review of the evidence, the IOM set the RDA for total carbohydrates at 130 grams a day (roughly 4 ounces) to meet the needs of the brain for fuel. This amount is much less than typically consumed by adults.

As for sugars, the IOM noted that the average intake of sugars among adolescent males was 143 grams per day, and that the heaviest users were consuming 208 grams per day–much more than the amount of total carbohydrate needed.

Since sugars are not required nutrients, the IOM could not set an RDA. And although it did not have enough evidence to set an Upper Limit, the IOM suggested that the maximum level of intake of added sugars (as opposed to those naturally present in foods) should be a whopping 25% or less of calories.

Americans typically consume around 20% of calories from added sugars. Taken at face value, the IOM suggestion made it sound as if current intake levels were just fine. The sugar industry happily viewed 25% as a recommendation, not a maximum.

Before the sugar industry got after them, many countries recommended an upper level of sugar intake at 10% of calories. That’s what the U.S. Pyramid did in 1992.

The sugar industry does not like the 10% recommendation. It means, for example, that just one of Mayor Bloomberg’s 16-ounce sodas takes care of recommended sugar intake for the day.

Robert Lustig, who is largely concerned about what too much fructose does to us, thinks that 50 grams of sugar (sucrose or HFCS) is a reasonable Upper Limit for most people. This would provide 25 grams of fructose, which the body can handle with relative ease. What’s interesting about his cut point is that it means 200 calories a day, or 10% of calories for a 2000 calorie diet. So there we are at 10% of calories again.

If the FDA wanted to be helpful, it could do two things.

1. Require companies to list added sugars under the carbohydrate category on food labels.

2. Set a DV for sugars at 50 grams.

In the meantime, everyone would be healthier eating less sugar. 

  • Kelly

    The American Heart Association recommends even narrower guidelines, at only 6 tsp/day for women and 9 tsp/day for men.

  • Marc Brazeau

    Americans understand pounds and ounces, teaspoons and tablespoons and yet nutrition recommendations are always presented in grams and milligrams. The confusion is compounded by the fact that servings are in ounces, pounds or cups and nutrients are in grams.

    One more reason we’ve ended up with such a disconnect between advice and action.

    I think health journalist would be doing most readers a service by putting amounts in the context of ounces or teaspoons.

    (Some helpful person is going to point out that they just do the math as 1 gram = .035 ounces. Yes, but remember, you’re a lot smarter than the rest of us.)

  • Cathy Richards

    The 10% of calories maximum for added sugars, as per WHO, includes fruit juice sugars (yes, even 100% fruit juice). That’s pretty terrifying to the fruit juice industry!

    I look forward to the day when ADDED sugars are on the nutrition facts table. Maybe sugars would read like this TOTAL(Added) eg. 1 cup of chocolate milk would read 24 g (12 g).

    I’ve been told that Health Canada and our CFIA decided not to do this in part because they can’t audit the accuracy since labs cannot determine the difference between added and natural sugars. Well. I think they can — lactose vs. sucrose should be able to be tested. Nonetheless, a poor reason to exclude information that is very relevant to health, prevents discrimination against natural sugars like raisins in raisin bran so that fruit intake can be better promoted, AND consumers want to know!!!

    It’s our own fault though. During the stakeholder input phase for Canadian labelling, Dietitians of Canada advised the government that there was no need to list added sugars — sugars are sugars they said. Hmmm….they were sponsored by the sugar industry at the time, but apparently that had nothing to do with their input…

  • Cathy Richards

    We typically use 4 g as “one teaspoon” in Canada. Industry though likes to use 5 g as one teaspoon. Wonder why… :)

  • Laura Collins

    I have often wondered about this. It seems most people are either saying to eat no sugar or to keep sugar consumption moderate.

  • Elizabeth

    As a Registered Dietitian, I am all for labeling foods with “added sugars”. However, added sugars will be hard to regulate from an enforcement standpoint, as they are chemically no different from naturally-occurring sugars. Therefore, you couldn’t monitor whether labels were accurate, because lab tests can only provide data on TOTAL sugar (natural or added).

  • Natalie (@NatalieInCA)

    RDA for total carbohydrates:130 grams a day
    Whoa, that is a really good number. Most people would consider this as being on a low carb diet.

    Regarding added sugar, for now, the best is still to read the ingredient list.

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  • Sieurce

    I usually less my sugar consumption, we still have potential to got some disease. Better to keep our sugar in balance level like WHO standard that most of us know. Or changing sugar with some fruit. They have good level for us.

  • Abby

    Cathy and Elizabeth –

    I can definitely understand the concern for differentiating between sugars so as not to lump both fruits and cookies into the same category, but as others pointed out sugar is processed as sugar in the body, regardless of the source or whether it is naturally occurring or not. The distinction, obviously, comes in the vitamins that are accompanied by the sugar and in the overall quality and nutritional value of the product, but I think that distinguishing on labels allows people to create a separate allowance for “added sugar” and not take into account that they may be consuming adequate numbers from the foods already present in their diet. Just because apples come accompanied with other nutrients that are necessary for health doesn’t mean that their sugar content should be negated because it is naturally occurring, it is still sugar and people, in my opinion, should be encouraged to seek out nutrients that come with lower sugar content.

    I have no doubt that the sugar industry is probably lobbying hard to avoid making this distinction, and while I don’t think their actions to do so are well-intended, I don’t think that differentiating between sugars is a solution. Natural sugars vs. added sugars should still account for the same amount of total consumption in sugars, and my fear is differentiating between them would inevitably cause people to consume more in total.

    Thanks, Marion, as always for promoting thoughtful, respectful discussion!


  • Crider

    But there’s also the problem of fiber. An apple has fiber while apple juice does not. Fiber helps the body deal with fructose much better than without.

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  • David

    I’ve only recently started tracking my nutritional intake, using MyFitnesspal. I’m surprised to find that if I eat my normal one apple, one banana, and 4 dried figs a day then that just about puts me at 10% (my recommended daily intake is 1980 calories). That leaves no room for my Fage yogurt with blueberries or a small piece of dark chocolate. This is sad. I’m a very fit 55 yr old male who eats responsibly, but if I can’t reasonably meet the 50g guideline then no wonder so many people give up or don’t even try! I’ll take my chances and enjoy that dark chocolate anyways! Thanks for addressing this issue, I’ve been trying to find out what was recommended (I just didn’t want to know the answer! ). dt

  • Hesid

    I have a petition out on asking the FDA to determine a DV for sugar. Please check it out. I think this is an important issue.

  • Amy


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  • IanHHH

    You need to get inline with the rest of the world and change to metric weights. They allow you to make complete sense and enable much better comparisons and judgements.

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  • Lara Thomas

    I agree David! I feel like the 50g should be more for sugars that are added in to products and not for naturally occuring sugars in organic foods. This allows you to eat that apple and banana and also that Fage and chocolate. :) I typically only worry about sugars that are added into products and just try to pair my natural sugars with protein to keep blood sugar more stable.

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  • GaelanClark

    Okay, so as a “registered dietitian” you have the scientific knowledge that high fructose corn syrup and sugar derived from cane or beets are no different chemically?

    Do you want to revisit your comment now?

  • Susan Johann

    i remember hearing as a kid that the US was going to go metric and we’d all have to learn the metric system. I don’t know why that didn’t happen but I wish it had. The metric system is easier to understand. I’m sure we’d quickly get used to it.

  • Natalia

    HFCS is about 55% fructose, 42% glucose (rest water)
    Sugar from cane is 50% fructose, 50% glucose
    Sugar from beet is 50% fructose, 50% glucose

    Gaelan I can’t understand whether you’re being intentionally rude or not, but either you misunderstood Elizabeth’s comment, or you don’t understand the composition of these sugars. There is very little difference.

    I think what Elizabeth was trying to say is that manufacturers who currently use cane sugar in their recipes can change to use a naturally occurring sugar (such as fruit puree or fruit juice) instead, but they will not have to disclose this on the label, since the label only discusses ‘added’ sugars (which fruit juice is not), and total sugars.

  • Brent Hutchinson

    Can someone reply to me? I was diagnosed as pre diabetes and I’m looking for what is an acceptable amount of sugar for daily consumption. For the next 3 months I’m swearing off soda, coffee (which I usually drink all day and take it with half and half and 2 and a half sugars. I’m still drinking coffee but only with halfnhalf, no sugar.) I’m switching to rye and wheat breads, same with noodles, I’m just trying to eat a much more healthier diet. I think my coffee intake has skyrocketed my risk of diabetes which I am officially concerned, and trying to prevent this. I’m looking on the internet for foods I can eat and safe substitutes that I can live a healthier life and not worry about dying. I’m only 31 years old and have decided that living fast is going to kill me fast.
    I would exercise but the reason I even know about this pre diabetes condition is because I was given a catscan and sonogram of my insides because I was originally in there for Bacterial Meningitis, while there, they found blood clots in my heart and lung and put me on these medicines. My blood is thin enough to know that the medicine dosage is working, but since the blood clots are in my heart and lung, doing exercise or anything that will elevate my heart rate puts me at a high risk for a heart attack. I can’t fight the problem head on, I have to be strategic for now. I can’t wait to get the OK from my doctor to exercise, I will tear this down. Boom..
    I’d like to thank the academy. You love me, you really love me!