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. 

  • badlimey

    Of course I meant Nestle the food giant not the misinformed lady that wrote the article.

  • badlimey

    They are chemically quite different and the insulin response is different when ingested. Where did you get your education?

  • badlimey

    They are chemically similar but the insulin response is different when ingested.

  • Natalia

    Can you elaborate please? The insulin response is different between glucose and fructose, yes, but when the compositions are so similar there is such a small variance in insulin response between these different sugars.

  • badlimey

    I am more concerned with the timed delivery of sugars as an energy source and not a source of fat storage.

    Refined sugars are the number 1 public health threat, followed by the consumption of wheat and most legumes. Last of the big 3 would be trans fats.

    I’m not a nutritionist This is my opinion based on thousands of hours of research and practical application. I was sent home to die by the VA suffering from complications following a quintuple bypass, severe neurological problems including peripheral neuropathy (Statin reaction), Memory loss (Statin reaction) and some spinal chord damage complete with arthritis in my back, knees, hip, wrist, and ankles.

    I had a slew of prescriptions for my Coronary heart Disease and Opiates for pain management. I quit them all and I am now 62 days into a Vegan diet.

    I am now adding some animal proteins (The lipid Hypothesis has NOT been proven) but advances in the knowledge of fats in our bodies has proven that they play a vital role in nutrient delivery among others.

    I am going to end up on a modified paleo diet with emphasis on meat sources that are beyond organic and by that I mean they live a natural lifestyle free of antibiotics, alien and genetically modified foods, steroids and other growth hormones etc. One example of this would be free range bison.

    That takes me a long way from the fructose/sucrose discussion but I take this stuff seriously.

  • badlimey

    That’s easy my friend, the best intake of refined sugars is zero! Read labels and look for High Fructose Corn Syrup or artificial sweeteners which are totally toxic.

  • badlimey

    Contact me privately please your Doctors are hurting not helping you.

  • badlimey

    Also did you know that eating wheat bread will spike your sugar more than a snickers. It also contains gluten a protein we cannot break down destroys the villi in your small intestine which in turn will destroy your body’s ability to absorb other nutrient; and that’s just the beginning of the bad stuff.

    You can’t have a nutrition discussion with an MD because they know nothing about the subject. Most MD’s today are glorified pharmacy assistants that dispense medicines they don’t understand. Some of them are really good at cutting you open and other invasive procedures, these doctors are glorified mechanics.

    If you want to get healthy go and see an ND and a Chiropractor, if you want to die keep doing what you are doing.

    Here’s a photo of the result of listening to MD’s and Cardiologists, that great big bandaid is covering up the scar from my quintuple bypass.

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  • Cindy Sullivan

    David, this is interesting to me because I’ve recently started tracking through MyFitnesspal, too. My reason is cancer, though. I read that normal cells have two sugar receptors, but cancer s=cells have something like 46 sugar receptors. Fresh fruit is the only sugar I add to my diet, but as you probably know there is also sugar in many veggies. I know fruit has some important nutrition, but now I’m worried about even half a piece of fruit.

  • Roy Walker

    the average daily intake of fructose for Americans is, 80grams. there is a problem there. In 1822 the average American ingested 45 grams of sugar, every 5 days, In 2012, Americans consumed 765 grams of sugar every five days.

  • Roy Walker

    Hi Cindy Sullivan, you may be interested in watching this video, by a nutritionist who lost her son to cancer, and now works with cancer patients, she talks about the sugar receptors in cancer cells… and a lot more besides. I have a keen interest in cancer, after having 3 siblings die of the horrible disease, 2 in the last 4 months.

  • Cindy Sullivan

    Roy, do you have a link to that video? I’m very interested. I also have a suggestion for you. Please read Radical Remission by Kelly Turner as soon as you can. It’s possible for you to avoid cancer with the strategies she outlined after interviewing hundreds of patients who cured their own cancer either after Western Medicine sent them home to die, and others who used only alternative therapies. At stage IV my tumor markers are coming DOWN!

  • Roy Walker

    I live in New Zealand and we are metric there, but I grew up under the old imperial system, however, I wanted to say I find it easy to work out % with the metric system as our labelling has grams per item per 100grams, 10g of sugar= 10% 24g of carbs=24% etc etc.

  • Roy Walker

    yes sorry Cindy, here it is, funny I thought I had added it???

  • Roy Walker

    But The American Heart Association, also says Although sugars are not harmful to the body, our bodies don’t need sugars to function properly. Added sugars contribute additional calories and zero nutrients to food. NO HARM, OMG are they out of touch or what???

  • Roy Walker

    Cut out all grains, eat vegetables, eat a small amount of fruit (1 piece per day) cut out all sugars and cakes anything that has sugar in it. eat vegetables meat fish shell fish poultry, and good fats. eat all fats on the meats eat olive oil eat olives eat avocados, eat real whole foods and you will feel fantastic. if you need a bit more starch eat potatoes or sweet potatoes, pumpkin, good luck

  • Roy Walker

    Good number for people with unbroken health systems

  • Roy Walker

    Here is an interesting experiment….When exhaustion is sucking the life out of one’s life, the tried and true remedy is plentiful quantities of liver, the planet’s #1 superfood, known for its mysterious and legendary anti-fatigue factor which science has yet to identify.

    A July 1951 article published in the Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine describes this factor and a study which attempted to identify it. Benjamin K. Ershoff, PhD divided lab rats into three groups.

    Group 1 ate a basic rat diet, fortified with 11 vitamins.

    Group 2 ate the same rat diet as group 1, with the addition of supplemental vitamin B complex.

    Group 3 ate the the same rat diet as the first two groups but instead of vitamins or B complex, they received 10% of their ration as powdered liver.

    The results?

    A 1975 article in Prevention magazine described the results of the experiment in the following words:

    “After several weeks, the animals were placed one by one into a drum of cold water from which they could not climb out. They literally were forced to sink or swim. Rats in the first group swam for an average 13.3 minutes before giving up. The second group, which had the added fortifications of B vitamins, swam for an average of 13.4 minutes. Of the last group of rats, the ones receiving liver, three swam for 63, 83 and 87 minutes. The other nine rats in this group were still swimming vigorously at the end of two hours when the test was terminated. Something in the liver had prevented them from becoming exhausted. To this day scientists have not been able to pin a label on this anti-fatigue factor.”

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  • Jo Ingram

    You have the most valid point I’ve seen on this thread. If all nutritionists would speak in clearly understood terms, a lot of people wouldn’t give up. I’ve taken a lot of time to educate myself but it was difficult and I made many mistakes along the way. There is a huge disconnect between advice and action taken because most of the people trying to figure it out give up.

  • Jeremy M

    My grandfather said that as a kid they told him that the US was going to go metric and we’d have to learn the metric system. I bet they are still telling kids that today.

  • ARCreative

    Just like we’re still using cursive every day of our life, right?

  • Jeremy M

    I honestly can’t remember the last time I even wrote anything…

  • Brent Hutchinson

    You still have to learn the metric system, at least to pass high school. To know the weight and conversions of stuff. But I know what you mean.

  • Brent Hutchinson

    Metric system is so much easier. I don’t know why America hasn’t gone metric system yet. Americans still have to know the metric system anyway, and it’s easier. Simplistic. By 10s

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  • Nancy Burton

    Brent, I highly recommend you read the book “Wheat Belly” by William Davis, MD. There is a lot of good information in this book, including how to reverse the progression of Type 2 Diabetes with diet. The author has successfully treated hundreds of patients with various illnesses. I know it has been awhile since you posted but I hope you are doing well. Wishing you the best of health!