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“Sugar addiction” is trending in health circles these days, with numerous books and studies aiming to prove the dangers of consuming the sweet stuff and touting ways to kick the unhealthy habit.

And for good reason—every day the average American consumes 82 grams of added sugar (equivalent to about 20 teaspoons of granulated sugar) while British teens take in 74.2 g and Australian teen boys down an average of 92 g.

Hong Kong ranks 53rd out of 160 countries in terms of sugar consumption per capita, but the increasing prevalence of processed foods and hidden sugars are a cause for concern among many local parents.

We look at the facts about sugar, how much is too much and ways to enjoy sweets without causing harm.

Why Is Sugar Bad For You?

It’s common knowledge that eating too many sugar-laden sweets can cause cavities, weight gain and spikes in blood sugar in children.

Here in Hong Kong, an Oral Health Survey conducted in 2011 showed that around half of 5-year olds have already experienced tooth decay.

Sugar is just one of the factors that cause tooth decay. Learn more in: How To Stop Your Baby From Getting Cavities.

Several recent studies have also shown the effects of excess sugar, particularly fructose, and its role in metabolic dysfunction and related symptoms such as elevated blood sugars and triglycerides, and high blood pressure.

In fact, most excess sugar is metabolized into body fat, leading to the global increase in obesity and diabetes (the number of people worldwide with diabetes increased from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014).

Kid playing with chocolate cake

Concentrated forms of sugar can be the most dangerous

Fructose—which is often extracted from corn, beets and sugarcane—has also been cited as being as toxic to the liver as alcohol.

Consumption of large amounts of concentrated fructose, especially on an empty stomach, can overload the liver and lead to excess fat buildup in the organ as well as inflammation and scarring.

Finally, excess sugar consumption has been implicated in increased risk of some cancers, as well as their recurrence, Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss, and skin and cell aging.

What Is The Daily Recommended Sugar Intake?

“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of [becoming] overweight, obesity and tooth decay,” says Dr Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization (WHO).

The remarks were part of an announcement of new WHO guidelines in 2015, referring to the daily intake of monosaccharides (such as glucose and fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.

The WHO advises a further reduction to below 5% or about 25 g (6 teaspoons) per day for added health benefits including fewer cavities and a decrease in diabetes and obesity rates.

Is The Sugar From Fruit Bad For You?

The guidelines do not apply to sugars in fresh fruits and vegetables or those naturally present in milk sugar naturally present in milk (like lactose), due to “no reported evidence of adverse effects of consuming these sugars.”

Did you know?
To make foods “low fat,” many manufacturers replace the fat with added sugar.

In 2016, the American Heart Association also revised its recommendations for children and teens downward to less than 6 teaspoons a day of added sugars and no more than 8 fluid ounces of sugary beverages per week. That’s less than one can (11 fl oz) of soda per week.

How much sugar in a glass of coke?

A single soda contains up to 40 grams of sugar

Hide and Seek

While we all know that candy, cakes and colas are loaded with sugar, much of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually considered sweets.

In fact, a 2012 study found manufacturers added sugar to 74% of packaged foods sold in the U.S. See the table below for the sugar content in some of the foods and drinks in our everyday diets.

Table of sugar content on everyday foods

Bear in mind that sugar goes by many different names—at least 61, according to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.

Here’s a short list to help you decipher ingredients labels: agave nectar, barley malt, cane juice, carob syrup, corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, maltodextrin, molasses, refiner’s syrup, saccharose, sorghum syrup, sucrose and turbinado sugar.