Nutrition Articles

The Hunt for Hidden Sugar

How Much of the Sweet Stuff is Hiding Your Foods?

Ready for a little experiment? Grab that jar of sugar, a measuring spoon, a plate and a can of regular soda. Then, dump one teaspoon of sugar onto the plate. Repeat this nine more times. Do you know what you have, besides a mess? The amount of sugar in one 12-ounce can of soda! Just look at that mound!

Now locate the sugar listing on the soda's nutrition label—40 grams. Four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Do the math. That innocent can of pop contains 10 teaspoons of sugar and 160 empty calories.

Even if you don’t drink regular soda, the typical American now eats the equivalent of about 17 teaspoons (68 grams) of added sugars every day. That sugar alone adds up to 270 extra calories—more than 13% of the average person's caloric intake. 

Less is More

So how much should you be limiting these added sugars? Several health organizations, such as the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association have established guidelines regarding the intake of added sugars. A healthy eating pattern should limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day.  This does not include naturally occurring sugars found in fruits (fructose) and dairy products (lactose). The chart below lists this maximum recommended daily sugar intake based on various calorie levels.

Maximum Sugar Intake
(10% of Calorie Intake)

Daily Calorie

Calorie Limit
Added Sugars

Added Sugars

Added Sugars

120 30 7.5

150 37.5 9.0

180 45 11

210 52.5 13

240 60 15

270 67.5 17

Deciphering Labels

It can be confusing to try to find out how much added sugar a food contains. The sugar listing on a Nutrition Facts label lumps all sugars together, including naturally-occurring milk and fruit sugars, which can be deceiving. This explains why, according to the label, one cup of milk has 11 grams of sugar even though it doesn't contain any sugar “added” to it.

To determine how much sugar has been added to a food product, follow these two tips:
  • Read the ingredients list. Learn to identify terms that mean added sugars, including sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, corn syrup, dextrin, honey, invert sugar, maple syrup, raw sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, corn sweeteners, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, malt, molasses, and turbinado sugar, to name a few.
  • Refer to the chart below for approximate amounts of hidden sugar in foods.

Hidden Sugars in Foods


Serving Size

Added Sugar

Cakes and Cookies

Angel food cake

4 oz piece

7 tsp

Banana Cake

4 oz piece

2 tsp

Brownie, no icing

1 oz piece

4 tsp


4 oz piece

2 tsp

Chocolate cake, iced

4 oz piece

10 tsp

Chocolate chip cookie

1 cookie

2 tsp

Coffee cake

4 oz piece

5 tsp

Cupcake, iced

4 oz piece

6 tsp

Fig Newtons

2 cookies

2 tsp


1 cookie

3 tsp

Glazed doughnut

1 doughnut

4 tsp

Oatmeal cookie

1 cookie

2 tsp


Chocolate candy bar

1 bar

4.5 tsp

Chocolate mint

1 piece

2 tsp

There is room to include a small amount of added sugars in your eating plan to improve the palatability and flavor of nutrient-rich foods—a sprinkle of brown sugar on your morning oatmeal or a dribble of honey in tart plain yogurt. However, the main sources of added sugars like sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets and snacks, need to be limited. These type foods provide little nutritional value to one’s diet but may be adding a substantial amount of unwanted calories.

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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

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