Dr. Roach: What’s the recommended daily amount of sugar?

Keith Roach
To Your Health

Dear Dr. Roach: I have questions about the nutritional facts label on food products, specifically as it relates to sugar. The labels now provide a percentage daily value for “added sugars.” Doing the math (for example, 10 grams of added sugars equals 20% of the daily value) indicates that the daily value of added sugars (for a 2,000-calorie daily diet) is 50 grams. I assume this is not a goal, but rather an amount to try not to exceed. Less is better? Would zero be best?

There is no daily value information on the labels for “total sugar.” The Food and Drug Administration website says, “No Daily Reference Value has been established for total sugars because no recommendation has been made for the total amount to eat in a day.” I assume this should not be interpreted to mean that any amount of “natural” sugar is OK. For example, just 8 ounces of orange juice has 22 grams of total sugar, with none being added sugar. That seems like a lot of sugar, even if it is “natural” sugar. Even if there are no formal guidelines, in your opinion, is there a limit to the amount of naturally occurring sugar that one should strive to stay under each day?

Dr. Keith Roach

— S.C.

Dear S.C.: To your body, sugar that is naturally contained in food is sometimes exactly the same, chemically, as sugar that’s added. A glass of orange juice has just about the same amount of sugar as a sugar-sweetened soft drink. Your body can’t tell the difference, so I recommend consuming only modest amounts of fruit juices: 8 ounces is about 40% of the total recommended sugar intake for a person for a day.

Sugar contained in whole fruits is absorbed more slowly due to the fiber content of the fruit, and most authorities believe that it does not have the same health risks as consuming essentially pure sugar in liquid form. A good-sized apple has 20-25 grams of sugar, but the same amount of sugar in an apple and in apple juice are not treated the same way by your body. For example, whole fruit doesn’t quickly raise blood sugar in the way that fruit juice or soda does. This is mostly because the fiber in the fruit slows absorption of the sugar, and fiber is absent in juice.

Nevertheless, I don’t recommend large amounts of fruit daily. One or two servings at the most with a meal is best. Fruits contain little protein and should make up only a small proportion of our caloric intake. Vegetables, legumes and nuts have exceedingly little sugar, and should make up a large proportion of our calories each day. Most high-protein foods contain little sugar by themselves. It’s the processed foods, especially baked goods, that have large amounts of added sugar. These are best avoided, not only because of the sugar, but because of the lack of other valuable nutrients in most processed foods.

I do not recommend anyone shoot for zero sugar intake. Fruits are fun and good for you in moderation. One should choose their sugar intake wisely.

Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.