where do adults get there sugar intake

Did you know that U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been reporting food supply data for over 100 years?! And for over 30 years, USDA has been monitoring actual intakes of Americans. This extensive history provides us important insights into dietary intake trends and changes in the food supply.

One important report that USDA publishes is its dietary status report, “What We Eat in America (WWEIA).” The WWEIA report comes out every two years with data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), assessing the health status and dietary intakes of Americans. This report includes data on added sugars intake, and the findings from the last 20 years may surprise you. The most recent report shows that the percent of total calories from added sugars fell from 18.1% in 2000 to 12.6% in 2016.1,2,3 For reference, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars be limited to 10% of total calories.4

While the total added sugars intake data is always interesting, there were more questions we had, like where do people get their added sugars? And, do people who eat very little added sugars avoid all treats? Do people who eat lots of added sugars get their added sugars from a different place? Because we at the Sugar Association believe that increasing our knowledge about sugar is beneficial to understanding it’s role in the diet, we asked researchers to take a deeper dive into the NHANES data from 2009-2012 to look at patterns of the sources of added sugars in adults.5 The researchers split the participants into 10 equal groups (deciles) to see how these patterns differed across that range of intakes (low to high). The mean intake of added sugars was 13.1% of total calories, with the lowest consumers (decile 1) at <11.9%, the highest (decile 10) at >19.6% and the middle (decile 5) being around 15%. So, did the sources of added sugars differ across intakes? Let’s look a little closer at what the researchers found.

Sweetened beverages are the major contributor of added sugars for the highest consumers, making up about half (51%) of the total added sugars calories. For the middle consumers, sweetened beverages were still the number-one source, making up less than a quarter (23%) of added sugars calories. However, for the lowest consumers, sweetened beverages make up only 4% of their added sugars calories!5


When looking at these data, it is important to keep in mind that making it into the top sources is a combination of how many added sugars are in the product, along with how frequently the products are consumed.

Top 10 Food Sources of Added Sugars for Adults by Decile of Intake5

RankDecile 1Decile 5Decile 10
Food Category% Total Added Sugars from Food CategoryFood Category% Total Added Sugars from Food CategoryFood Category% Total Added Sugars from Food Category
1Breads, Rolls, Tortillas20.0Sweetened Beverages23.1Sweetened Beverages51.4
2Sweet Bakery Products10.4Sweet Bakery Products13.9Coffee and Tea10.6
3Fats and Oils9.7Sugars9.5Sweet Bakery Products9.5
4Ready-to-Eat Cereals7.2Other Desserts6.8Sugars6.4
6Candy5.5Coffee and Tea6.1Other Desserts4.5
7Sweetened Beverages4.4Bread, Rolls, Tortillas5.8Ready-to-Eat Cereals2.2
8Condiments and Sauces3.8Ready-to-Eat Cereals5.3Fats and Oils1.2
9Mixed Dishes-Sandwiches3.2Fats and Oils3.4Breads, Rolls, Tortillas1.1
10Cured Meats/Poultry2.8Snack/Meal Bars2.0Quick Breads and Bread Products1.1

As added sugars intake increases, sweetened beverages are major contributors.5

About the Author

Courtney Gaine, Ph.D., R.D., is the President and CEO for the Sugar Association in Washington, D.C. Prior to this appointment in January 2016, Dr. Gaine served as the Vice President of Scientific Affairs at the association. Dr. Gaine previously served as senior science program manager at the North American branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI North America), a public, nonprofit scientific foundation that advances the understanding and application of science related to the nutritional quality and safety of the food supply. Prior to ILSI, Dr. Gaine held positions of project director, nutrition and wellness, at the nonprofit organization Convergence and science manager at FoodMinds, a public relations firm. She began her career in academia as an assistant professor at East Carolina University. A native Washingtonian, Dr. Gaine obtained her Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and biochemistry and bachelor’s degree in dietetics from the University of Connecticut, where she was also a co-captain of the UConn women’s basketball team.


  1. Welsh JA, Sharma AJ, Grellinger L, Vos MB. Consumption of added sugars is decreasing in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(3):726–734.
  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, Food Surveys Research Group. Food Patterns Equivalents Databases and Datasets. Available at: https://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=23869. Updated September 20, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018.
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, Food Surveys Research Group. WWEIA data tables. Available at: https://www.ars.usda.gov/northeast-area/beltsville-md-bhnrc/beltsville-human-nutrition-research-center/food-surveys-research-group/docs/wweia-data-tables/. Accessed October 10, 2018.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. Available at: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Published December 2015. Accessed April 10, 2018.
  5. Bailey RL, Fulgoni VL, Cowan AE, Gaine PC. Sources of added sugars in young children, adolescents, and adults with low and high intakes of added sugars. Nutrients. 2018;10(1):E102.

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