The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Added Sugar Intake in Consumers

Added Sugar Intake in Consumers

Health and Wellness

September 27, 2009

A recent study from the National Cancer Institute found that groups with low income and education levels are particularly vulnerable to diets with high-added sugars. 

The study, which interviewed more than 30,000 people, discovered that sugar intake was also higher among men than women, and highest among the youngest adults. African Americans had the highest sugar intake among both men and women, while Asian Americans had the lowest intake. 

There are differences within race and ethnicity groups that suggest interventions aimed at reducing the intake of added sugars be tailored to each group. For example, acculturation has had a severe effect on the Hispanic population, while having little effect on the Asian American population, who consume fewer sweets and fats than other groups. African American students tend to consume more sugar-sweetened beverages as compared to white students. European Americans tend to consume fewer snacks.

In terms of the relationship between education level and race and ethnicity, added sugars intake was inversely related to increased educational levels in whites, African Americans, Hispanic men and American-Indian/Alaskan-Native men. Though a similar inverse relationship emerged for Hispanic and American-Indian/Alaskan-Native women, the relationship was not as clearly defined. Educational status was unrelated to added sugar intake among Asian Americans.

Consumers in lower income segments tend to consume more added sugars than those with higher incomes, in part because foods high in added sugars are less pricy than their nutrient rich counterparts. Combined with their high palatability, products with added sugars are hard to resist, inexpensive and easy to obtain. This could help explain why low-income families have higher rates of overweight and obesity, says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and Clinical Associate Professor of Nutrition at Boston University.

“Income can play a role in contributing to overweight and obesity rates, especially in an economy where food prices have been rising. Historically, the consumer price index (CPI) for food goes up about two to three percent annually. Unfortunately, in 2008, it rose 5.5 percent. In 2009, it is predicted to go up three to four percent. Individuals with limited income have to be very price conscious and may be replacing higher priced, healthier foods and beverages with less healthy, cheaper alternatives in order to stay within their budget,” says Salge Blake.  

Sugar consumption has increased dramatically over the last two decades. Although the World Health Organization recommends that sugars be limited to less than 10% of total energy, Americans consume an average of 22.9 tsp/day – or 16.6% of total energy intake. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data finds that 60% of the added sugars Americans consume come from sodas, grain-based desserts and fruit drinks. 

“The number one source of added sugars in the diet of Americans is soft drinks,” says Salge Blake. “Intake of sweetened beverages has increased since 1965.” 

To meet current USDA recommendations for a balanced, nutritious diet, there is little room for added sugars, which is why this trend toward increasing added sugar intake in certain populations is of great concern. Added sugars are often brought into the diet at the expense of more nutrient dense food groups, and they provide little or no nutritional value. 

The relationship between added sugars and the current obesity epidemic, especially among children and young adults, should be considered, however, the precise role of added sugars in diseases and other chronic conditions has yet to be determined. Reducing or limiting added sugars across all populations is an important goal for retailers, and one that they can help consumers meet with increased access to nutrition education and healthier product options. 

“Registered dietitians need to continue to work with the public to help them understand how to easily and affordably choose and consume a healthy diet,” says Salge Blake. “Eating a healthy diet doesn’t have to be expensive if people know how to shop smart.”

You can view Joan Salge Blake’s guide to smarter shopping here: