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What the New Dietary Guidelines Left Out

Every 5 years, the government comes out with recommendations for how we should eat called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Even if the average person doesn’t follow them to a letter, what they say really matters. The Guidelines help shape policies and programs that affect millions of people and even influence the food industry.

The newest edition includes familiar advice about eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains. But it’s actually what the Guidelines left out that you should know about.

Surprising Sources of Hidden Sugar

pasta sauce
1/12Pasta SaucesThey taste savory, not sweet — but many have between 6 and 12 grams of sugar per half-cup serving. That’s what you’d get from a chocolate chip cookie. The American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than 100 calories of sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons’ worth) and men have no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons). Check the label for the sugar content of your favorite marinara or Alfredo sauces to help you plan. 
granola bars
2/12Granola BarsThey sound like health food, but many add sweeteners like corn syrup, brown sugar, honey, brown sugar syrup, dextrose, and fructose. Some have a yogurt or chocolate coating, or chocolate chips, which can ramp up the sugars fast — anywhere from 8 to 12 grams per serving. Instead of eating a 1-ounce granola bar, switch to 1 ounce of granola (about a third of a cup) and the sugar falls to about 5 grams.
fruit flavored yogurt
3/12YogurtYou’ll get plenty of calcium and protein. But even low-fat flavored yogurts can have 17 to 33 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving (including those that are naturally in the milk yogurt is made from). That’s about as much as 2 scoops (1 cup) of chocolate ice cream. Choose those that are lower in sugar. Or, buy it plain and toss in the fruit of your choice.
instant oatmeal
4/12Instant OatmealOatmeal has a good rep for being full of healthy fiber. But many fruit-flavored instant ones have 10-15 grams of sugar per packet. “Reduced sugar” varieties can have closer to 5 or 6 grams per packet. Better yet, add apple slices to plain instant oatmeal. It has less than 1 gram of sugar in a packet.
salad dressing
5/12Salad DressingSweet types, such as raspberry vinaigrette, French, and Catalina, have the most sugar — about 5 to 7 grams in just 2 tablespoons of dressing. So watch how much you pour on. A lower-sugar option is a light homemade vinegar and oil dressing. It will have only about 1 gram of sugar in the same amount.
raisin bran
6/12Breakfast CerealsYes, we all know that fruity kids’ cereals are high in sugar, but even healthier-sounding ones sneak it in. Many popular oat, corn, and bran cereals have 10-20 grams or more per cup. No matter what the front of the box promises, read the ingredients label and nutrition facts panel so you know what you’re getting.
energy drink
7/12Energy DrinksMost of those drinks that say they’ll give you a lift have lots of sugar along with caffeine. Some energy drinks have about 25 grams per 8-ounce serving. How about having some cool water instead? Sometimes, being dehydrated can make you feel tired.
canned peaches
8/12Packaged FruitsMandarin oranges in light syrup have about 39 grams of sugar per 1-cup serving. You can cut down on the sugar somewhat by draining the cup — that gets you to about 15.5 grams. A better choice: Just have fresh fruit.
coleslaw
9/12ColeslawThat’s the “healthy” side dish at the fast-food restaurant, isn’t it? Think again. One regular-size side of coleslaw from many popular fast-food places will give you about 15 grams of sugar. You can learn what goes into some of your favorite restaurant offerings by looking it up online on their website. When you crave coleslaw, you can always make a low-sugar version at home.
bottled iced tea
10/12TeaYou’re wary of the added calories and sugar in juices, so you’ve switched to tea. Uh-oh. Many popular teas have a surprising amount of sugar. The leading brands of lemon-flavored iced tea, for example, all have about 32 grams of sugar per bottle. A cup of apple juice has 24 grams. You can control sugar if you brew your own tea instead. Or try a flavored water that’s not high in sugar — check labels, though.
dried fruit
11/12Dried FruitWith all the water taken out, dried fruit has much more sugar by volume than fresh fruits. A small box of raisins — 1.5 ounces — has more than 25 grams of sugar. Instead, you could eat a half cup of grapes for 12 grams of sugar.
ketchup on cheeseburger
12/12KetchupAt about 4 grams per tablespoon, ketchup on your burger can give you a minor sugar boost. That’s not as much as some other foods on this list, but if you’re trying to cut back on sugar, switch to regular yellow mustard — you’ll get less than 1 gram of sugar per tablespoon.

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas on 7/18/2019

First, some quick backstory: Before the Guidelines are released, an advisory committee of scientific experts looks at the evidence and submits a report with what they think should be included. Then two government agencies, the USDA and HHS, write the Guidelines.

This time around, the committee recommended two things that didn’t end up making the final cut: stricter advice around both alcohol and sugar.

Since 1990, the Guidelines’ advice about alcohol has been no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women, and the latest edition stuck with that. One drink is the equivalent of 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol).

But the committee had suggested tightening that guidance to one drink or less per day for both men and women, citing evidence that the health risks are higher with more than that. Rates of drinking are up among Americans, including binge drinking. Deaths from alcohol are up too, with alcohol accounting for 100,000 deaths every year.

As for sugar, the advice has morphed from “avoid too much sugar” in the 1980s to a suggested limit of no more than 10% of calories from added sugar (also included in the newest Guidelines). Most people get about 13% of their calories from sugar.

Yet the committee suggested an even lower intake of 6% of calories. Their reasoning: Reducing sugar could help public health. And most people need to focus their daily calories on foods that give them the nutrients they need — they can’t afford to spend those calories on sugary foods and drinks. (The top sources of added sugar are sweet beverages and desserts.)

Why didn’t these stricter limits make it in? The authors of the Guidelines didn’t think there was enough evidence — and they aren’t obligated to take all the committee’s recommendations anyway.

Let’s face it: A global pandemic is not exactly the best time to shame people about drinking alcohol or eating sugar. But it’s good to know what’s on the minds of some health experts, what kind of recommendations we might see down the road, and what we might want to consider for our own lives.

So in the meantime, here’s what both the committee and Guidelines do agree on: However much alcohol you drink, drinking less is better for your health than drinking more (and if you currently don’t drink, don’t start for health reasons). And limit portions of sugar-sweetened drinks — or better yet, replace them with water.

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