NEW YORK — Health experts have been nudging Americans to kick the sugar habit for years, and now it’s official: The Food and Drug Administration is recommending a daily cap on sugar for the first time.
The goal is for Americans to limit added sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily calories, according to the guidelines. For someone older than 3, that means eating no more than 12.5 teaspoons, or 50 grams, of it a day.
That’s about the same amount of sugar found in a can of Coke, but for most people, giving up sugary soft drinks will not be enough to meet the recommendations.
Caloric sweeteners like sugar, honey, and high-fructose corn syrup are found in obvious places like sodas, cookies, and candy — but they are also lurking in foods with health appeal, like low-fat yogurt, granola, and whole-grain breads, as well as in ketchup, pasta sauce, canned fruit, and prepared soups, salad dressings, and marinades.
“There is a lot of hidden sugar in our food supply, and it’s not just in sweets,” said Dr. Frank Hu, a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard.
Under the new guidelines, the amount of added sugars and the 10 percent daily limit will be added to nutrition labels on packaged foods.
Currently, nutrition labels reveal only the total amount of carbohydrates in a product. The FDA has said it wants to change the labels to help consumers distinguish between the amount of naturally occurring sugar and the amount of added sugar.
With the public comment period closed, manufacturers will have about two years to make the label changes.
“When you see a yogurt with pictures of blueberries and strawberries on the label — right now there could be a teeny tiny amount of real fruit in there and an awful lot of added sugar, or lots of fruit and dairy and little added sugar, and the consumer cannot distinguish between the two,” said Susan Mayne, the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA.
Critics from the food industry have balked at the sugar cap and the new label requirements, saying the new labels will only confuse shoppers.
A study published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in June found that people overestimated the amount of sugar in products that listed “added sugars,” and were less likely to buy them.
“Metabolically speaking, our bodies don’t differentiate between added and natural sugars,” said Kris Sollid, a dietitian who is one of the study’s authors and director of nutrients communications for the International Food Information Council, which receives funding from food and beverage companies including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.
If people are watching their weight, he said, “it’s more important to look at total calories.”
Dietitians agree that knowing total calories is important, but note that added sugars represent empty calories, devoid of nutrients. While milk and fruit contain natural sugars, they are nutrient-dense foods that provide calcium, protein, vitamins, or dietary fiber.
The World Health Organization endorses a 10 percent cap on sugars, excluding those in fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk, and urges people to aim even lower, limiting sugars to 5 percent of caloric intake to derive greater health benefits.
The American Heart Association also recommends stricter sugar limits, saying women should consume only about 100 calories a day in added sugars — about six teaspoons — and men no more than 150 calories, or nine teaspoons. The FDA is recommending that children 1 to 3 should not consume more than 25 grams of sugar a day.
Nearly half of the added sugar consumed in the United States comes from sweetened drinks, much of it in soft drinks, but also in sweetened tea and coffee, fruit drinks, and sports drinks, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.
Sugar makes up about 13.5 percent of Americans’ caloric intake, so public health experts think the goal of 10 percent is attainable. But younger people, blacks, and the poor tend to consume higher amounts.