That Spoonful of Sugar Is More Like a Shovelful

French researchers report diners underestimate how much sugar they typically add to an otherwise healthy dish of yogurt.
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(Photo: Abel Tumik/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Abel Tumik/Shutterstock)

As Francie Diep reminds us in the latest issue of Pacific Standard magazine, there are serious health risks to eating excessive amounts of sugar. One logical response is to stay away from highly sweetened products and eat natural, less-processed food—adding just a bit of sugar or honey if you feel the need.

It sounds like a solid plan. In fact, people who pursue it are probably kidding themselves.

According to newly published research from France, people who add some form of sweetener to plain yogurt vastly underestimate how much sugar they are ingesting. Moreover, they add more grams of sugar, on average, than manufacturers use in the pre-sweetened variety. Sacré bleu!

You might want to think about how much sugar you are ingesting.

Yogurt is a popular dessert in France, and many diners prefer to start with the plain variety and add their own sweetener to taste. To discover precisely how much they're piling on, a research team led by Anne Saint-Eve invited 199 men and women to either lunch or dinner. While participants ranged widely in age, all were either of normal weight or slightly overweight.

"The meal ended with a plain yogurt (weighing 125 grams, or 4.4 ounces) that was served in its original, branded container," the researchers write in the journal Appetite. "The participant's usual sweetener was provided in its original packaging." The amount of sugar, jam, or honey they used was measured by weighing the package before and after dinner.

Not surprisingly, amounts varied considerably, with people with higher body mass indexes (a proxy for being overweight) adding more than their normal-weight counterparts. Class also played a role, with those "in middle and lower socio-professional categories" adding more sugar, on average, than those in the upper ranks.

"Participants tended to say that they added little to moderate amounts of sugar," the researchers report. "Using the coffee-spoon image, 18 percent of participants said they added 'half a spoon,' 45 percent 'one spoon,' 32 percent 'two spoons,' 5 percent 'three spoons,' and 1 percent 'more than three spoons,' which is an average equivalent of 6.85 grams of added sugar per yogurt."

"This estimate was, on average, half of what they actually added (13.6 grams)," the researchers write.

Those who used jam as a sweetener tended to add more than those who preferred table sugar or honey, but even those in the latter categories tended to add more than is found in pre-sweetened French yogurts, which contain an average of 10.2 grams of added sugar.

Of course, Americans tend to eat pre-sweetened yogurts (and in larger portions than the French). Nevertheless, the French study does have implications for American consumers, as many of us add our own sweetener to any number of purportedly healthy dishes.

So the next time you're slathering homemade, organic jam on that whole-wheat toast, you might want to think about how much sugar you are ingesting. And take your estimate with a grain of ... you know.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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