A Day's Worth of Sugar in a Single Food

The FDA just announced that Americans should limit their added sugar intake to 12 teaspoons per day. That’s less than it probably seems. Here’s where all that sugar is hiding.

Albert Gea / Reuters

The Food and Drug Administration this week recommended that people eat no more than 12.5 teaspoons of sugar each day, or about 50 grams. The idea is to limit sugar consumption to 10 percent of a person’s daily total calories. Currently, Americans get about 16 percent of their calories from added sugars on average.

The new rule is not as strict as the sugar caps other health organizations have suggested. The World Health Organization endorses a limit of six teaspoons, or 25 grams, per day.

The new limit part of the FDA’s push to change food labels to display the total amount of added sugars in a food, as opposed to natural sugars. (This is similar to how “saturated fat” and “total fat” are currently separated out on food labels.) Although added and natural sugars are chemically similar, foods that contain natural sugars, like fruit, usually contain other nutrients, like fiber, that are considered beneficial. Added sugar, meanwhile, is just that: superfluous. It’s been indicted by many nutritionists as one driver of the obesity epidemic and a potential cause of other health problems, such as heart disease.

If you are a sugar lover, you might not pay heed to FDA announcements. But if you do, this ought to make you nervous. Twelve teaspoons sounds like a lot, but given the amount of hidden, added sugars in the American diet, it adds up quickly.

Below are nine ways to get to 50 grams of sugar from a single meal, even if you’re trying to eat relatively healthily:*

  1. You could just get it over with at breakfast, with the banana-bread french toast at IHOP. Just half an order will do: The whole thing contains 102 grams of sugar.
  1. Even before you order the main course, many appetizers, such as the honey BBQ sauce boneless wings from Applebee’s (49 grams) with ranch dressing (1 gram) already contain enough sugar to meet the limit:
  1. You’re in danger even if you stick to the salad menu. Like with Chili's Caribbean Salad (plain, with chicken, or with shrimp, 64-68 grams):
  1. Or a Waldorf chicken salad from California Pizza Kitchen (56 grams):
California Pizza Kitchen
  1. In the entree section, one common pitfall are sugary, vaguely “ethnic” sauces. For example, you’d be over if you ate a meal of Panda Express sweetfire chicken (27 grams) and Beijing beef (24 grams):
Panda Express
  1. It’s not just the sticky sauces that are endemic to Americanized Asian food that are a problem, though. Olive Garden's Eggplant Parmigiana (21 grams) would reach the sugar cap if washed down with a Moscato Citrus Berry Cocktail (35 grams):
Olive Garden
  1. Of course, if you eschewed fast-casual eateries and ate nothing but amaranth and bone broth all day, you could reward yourself in the evening with one cup of Ben & Jerry's Half Baked ice cream (27 grams per half-cup serving, but come on, who really sticks to half a cup?):
Ben & Jerry’s
  1. Just make sure you don’t have any sugary beverages along the way, like a 16-ounce bottle of Coke (52 grams):
Coca Cola
  1. Or two cans of Red Bull (27 grams each):
Red Bull

Of course, any of these would be acceptable in a given day, as long as you also avoid the candy dish at the doctors’ office, adding a packet of sugar to your morning coffee, and squeezing ketchup on your burger. But that’s a perfectly fine existence.

* A couple of caveats: The nutrition facts come from the restaurants themselves. Added sugars aren’t displayed separately on their nutritional booklets, so some of this sugar—though probably not much—might be from fruit or milk. (How to know for sure? This is why the FDA wants added sugars listed separately!)