By now, American exceptionalism is a universally-accepted truism. Like dogs over cats and Star Wars over Star Trek, it’s simple fact that America is qualitatively different than other nations. Some would say “superior,” but I think modesty is more becoming of a nation of our stature, providence, and history. Why else would extraterrestrials decide to land on the White House lawn, as they do in every culturally relevant piece of sci-fi, if we weren’t exceptional? Would American parents everywhere claim their kids were special if they actually were not?
But perhaps the most conclusive evidence of our exceptionalism lies in how our nutritional labels relay information about sugar. If you go to a place like Germany or the UK and flip over a package of Haribo Goldbären (gummy bears), it’ll tell you how many percentage points the sugar in the candy counts toward your daily limit. Point being: everyone else has an upper limit for sugar consumption.
Researchers are still uncovering the mechanisms, but it appears that Americans benefit from an epigenetic resistance to the negative effects other nations experience from excessive sugar consumption. My pet theory? The confluence of high-fructose corn syrup subsidies, kids filling up Super Big Gulp cups with Slurpee when the clerk’s not looking, and Wilford Brimley diabetes commercials have converged to create a morphogenetic field of extreme sugar tolerance. Whether it’s a developing fetus or a South Asian migrant, the morphogenetic field envelops and affects everyone within the US. borders. In fact, there’s no such thing as “excessive sugar consumption” in the United States. It’s quite literally impossible to ever reach or even approach the recommended daily limit for added sugar intake because the limit doesn’t exist, physiologically, for Americans. Just flip over that package of Oreos and look at the nutritional label for yourself. American exceptionalism, indeed.
I’m kidding, of course, about the resistance to the damaging effects of excess sugar consumption, but not about the most salient point: there’s no official limit for sugar consumption in the U.S. and in a way, that is exceptional. What’s going on? Well, since sugar’s not an essential nutrient, the Institute of Medicine hasn’t issued a recommended daily allowance (RDA) for it like they have for calcium, total carbs, fat, selenium and all other essential nutrients. They have, however, suggested people get no more than 25% of their calories from added sugar. Yes: 25%. You’d hope the premier health organization in a first-world nation of 300+ million people would have higher expectations for its subjects, but nope. They’re apparently happy as long as you “only” eat about a quarter of your calories as pure white sugar.
It wasn’t always like this. For all its inadequacies, the 1992 US Food Pyramid (remember that?) did suggest no more than 12 teaspoons of sugar for a 2200 calorie diet, or about 10% of calories (PDF). That sounds fairly high to most of you eating Primally, but hey: at least they recommended a limit (and at least it was less than 25%).
Most other governments and health agencies (even the ones in the US) recommend saner limits. In 2002, the World Health Organization polled European countries (PDF) with dietary guidelines:
Many countries had 10% of calories as their limit for sugar, including Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Macedonia, Denmark, and Malta.
In Portugal, official dietary recommendations suggested limiting added sugar to 20-30 grams per day.
Turkish officials suggested 30 grams for women and 40 for men, or 10% of total calories.
Georgia wanted its citizens eating between 50-100 grams of sugar per day.
Armenia was very precise, recommending that no more than 8.2% of calories come from sugar, and not a tenth of a percent more!
Ukraine said 40 grams a day.
The Czech Republic’s 15 grams per day was the strictest.
The German government suggests no more than 90 grams of sugar, both naturally occurring and added, per day.
Other countries have similar recommendations. India suggests 10% of calories.
Things are moving in the right direction. Just as the people have become more aware of the potential dangers of added sugar, bureaucrats are following suit:
The World Health Organization recommends people obtain no more than 5% of daily calories from added sugar. That’s about 6 teaspoons or 25 grams on a typical diet, and it’s half of what they previously recommended a year or two ago. They’re urging countries to follow suit with national dietary guidelines.
Even in the US, the recent nutritional panel that recommended the USDA drop the warnings on dietary cholesterol also suggested they implement a suggested limit of 10% of calories as added sugar. As of now, the USDA hasn’t made any changes, choosing to lump added sugar in with “solid fats” (which is as weird a combination as I’ve ever seen) and suggesting we obtain no more than 5-15% of our diet from them.
The American Heart Association gets it, suggesting that men eat no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar a day. For women, it’s 6 teaspoons. The American Diabetes Association still doesn’t give any concrete sugar intake numbers but recommends against drinking sugary beverages, that most pernicious source of added sugar.
As I see it, the most prevalent recommendation across government agencies and health organizations is “no more than 10% of calories from added sugar.” In the typical 2000-ish calorie diet, that’s 12 teaspoons of sugar, or 55 grams of added sugar per day. That includes:
Any sugar used to make baked goods, candy, chocolate, desserts.
Any sugar used to make sauces, dressings, and condiments.
Honey, HFCS, molasses, agave nectar, white sugar, brown sugar, and any other isolated sugar (I’d say foods like honey and molasses have different metabolic effects than other sugars, but they are added sugars).
Any sugar found in sweetened beverages, including the naturally occurring sugar in fruit juices (most countries consider fruit juice sugar to be added since it’s divorced from its fiber; I tend to agree).
So, 55 grams of added sugar per day. 27.5 grams of fructose. And that’s only if you stick to a 2000 calorie diet.
Few people are actually eating 2000 calories a day. They’re overeating. They’re sitting around. They aren’t using glycogen. They’re walking around (sub-2000 steps a day) with fully replete liver glycogen. And added sugar has very different metabolic effects in a hypercaloric sedentary person with overstocked glycogen — both muscle and liver — stores.
That’s why I much prefer an absolute limit. A liver’s a liver’s a liver. Simply eating more calories doesn’t mean you can safely handle more sugar, nor does it mean your liver suddenly has more metabolic machinery to process and store the fructose as glycogen. If anything, eating higher calorie diets makes you more susceptible to the ravages of sugar, because it then becomes excess sugar. Even the most diehard “anti-fructose alarmist” skeptics will say that the only reason sugar becomes dangerous is when its in excess.
America sits atop the pack with 126.4 grams per day. Way to go, guys! Looks like we’re taking the IOM’s recommendations to heart.
Germany’s next with 102.9 grams a day.
The Netherlands does 102.5 grams.
Ireland follows with 96.7 grams.
The bottom five are Ukraine, China, Indonesia, Israel, and India with 17.1, 15.7, 15.2, 14.5, and 5.1 grams of added sugar per day, respectively. Judging from this study of sugar intake, diabetes, and obesity in India, I’m not sure how reliable any of these figures are, though.
If we take the numbers at face value, just 27 countries attain the 55 grams per day (again, assuming an approximately 2000 calorie diet) recommendation.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts, everyone. Sugar has experienced a bit of a renaissance of sorts in the health community’s consciousness. While I agree that freaking out over a little sugar in your coffee is crazy, and fruit and even honey and other unrefined sources of sugar can be healthy parts of a reasonable diet, I worry about the unrestricted and flagrant use of sugar.
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About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.