Sugar: How Much is Too Much?

You may be aware that too much sugar isn’t good for your health, but do you know how much is too much? If you were asked to estimate the amount of sugar included in a seasonal, large-size McDonald’s McCafé Shamrock shake, what would you predict? It may seem hard to believe, but by downing a whole shake, you’d be consuming a whopping 115 grams of sugar.

While the Shamrock shake may not be your drink of choice, a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that three in 10 American adults consume sugary drinks at least once per day. It is recommended to consume no more than 24 g sugar (six teaspoons) per day for women and 36 g sugar (nine teaspoons) per day for men. A 12-ounce regular soda contains 39 grams of sugar. This exceeds the recommended sugar intake for an entire day without even accounting for the sugar found in many other food sources.

The American Heart Association (AHA) warned that many drinks are still “loaded with too much sugar,” even among beverages touted as “healthy.” Although sodas, sweet tea, and Starbucks lattes may be recognized offenders of sugar recommendations, fruit juices and sports drinks are in the lineup right there with soda. Truth be told, many fruit juices contain the same amount of sugar as sodas, especially when they are not 100% juice.

So, what is the takeaway message for consumers? The next time you pick up a fruit drink or sports beverage, check the Nutrition Facts panel to calculate the amount of sugar included in your beverage. The panel gives the total grams of sugar, which includes both natural and added sugar. Apples and bananas are sweet due to sugars naturally found in the food, but apple juice and banana smoothies are even sweeter thanks to sugar and sweeteners added during processing. While a small apple contains about 15 grams of sugar, one cup of commercial apple juice contains 24 grams—that’s nine grams of extra sugar that you don’t need! Even one simple diet modification of choosing an apple over apple juice will cut empty calories and save over 13,000 calories in one year.

Sugar has multiple aliases in the food industry. Often times “sugar” will not be listed outright as an ingredient. Besides words ending in “-ose,” such as dextrose or sucrose, look out for ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, dehydrated cane juice, molasses, agave, and fruit juice concentrate, which are simply other names for sugar. Make grocery shopping a fun activity for you and your kids by writing up a list with sugar and sugar alternatives and walking through the snack and drink aisles looking for items that don’t contain the words on the list. As a rule of thumb, if a drink lists a sugar in the first three ingredients or contains more than one type of sugar, it’s best to avoid it.

The amount of sugar in a McDonald’s shake adds extra calories and zero grams of nutrition. Even if you’re sipping a sweet drink while reading this article, it’s not too late to start making small changes! Here are five tips that may encourage you to start cutting back:

  1. Serve in half. Start by cutting the amount of sugar you add to your tea and coffee by half.
  2. Swap out soda. Although water is always the best choice, choose sugar-free or reduced-sugar beverages.
  3. Shop smart. Compare labels and choose products with the lowest amount of added sugars. Fruit and dairy products contain natural sugars, which are different from added sugars.
  4. Substitute. Swap sweetened for unsweetened in your milks and yogurts, and throw in a piece of fruit instead.
  5. Spice it up. Opt out of adding sugar in your drinks, and try adding a dash of cinnamon or ginger instead.


1. Sugary Drink Consumption Still High, Says CDC. 2016. Available at: Accessed March 1, 2016.
2. American Heart Association. How to Reduce Added Sugar in Diet – Go Red For Women. Go Red For Women®. 2014. Available at: Accessed March 1, 2016.

Jessica Menig is a registered dietitian with Prisma Health’ss Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship. 

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