You may not think of bread as a sugary food, but it’s actually a sneaky source of the sweet stuff.

By Cynthia Sass
October 02, 2020
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Subway bread made international headlines this week when Ireland's Supreme Court ruled that it contains too much sugar to meet the legal definition of bread. A Subway franchisee claimed that the chain’s bread qualified as a “staple food,” which, in Ireland would exempt it from value-added tax (VAT). However, in Ireland the ingredients in bread by definition, such as sugar and fat, cannot exceed 2% of the weight of flour in the dough. Apparently the amount of sugar in Subway's bread exceeded the limit, thus disqualifying it as bread, and making it eligible for the tax.

You may be wondering if the US has standards for how food can be referred to, and it does. A few years back a mayonnaise brand filed a now dropped lawsuit against a vegan food company for using the word mayo, based on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) federal standard of identity, which states that mayonnaise must include eggs. The FDA standards for bread however, make no mention of sugar, and it’s a commonly used ingredient in breads made in the states.

As for Subway specifically, they’re not hiding the use of sugar. It’s the forth ingredient in the 9-grain wheat according to the ingredients statement on their website. They also provide the sugar content of their bread and other ingredients on their nutrition grid. Some breads contain as little as 2 grams of sugar per serving, half a teaspoon worth, like the mini Italian. The highest is 5 grams per serving in the 9-grain wheat, just over a teaspoon worth. It’s unclear if that’s for a 6-inch or 12-inch roll, but in either case, it’s actually less sugar than you might find in commonly purchased loaves at the supermarket.

For example, Wonder Bread contains 4 grams of added sugar per slice, which means a two-slice sandwich provides 8 grams, or two teaspoons worth. Added sugar refers to the kind added to a food by the manufacturer. That’s the type we should be limiting, unlike the naturally occurring sugar found in fresh whole foods, like fruit and sweet potatoes, which is bundled with health protective fiber and nutrients. King’s Hawaiian bread packs 6 grams of added sugar per slice. And even seemingly healthier bread options contain added sweeteners. One slice of Pepperidge Farm Whole Grain 100% Whole Wheat Bread contains 4 grams of added sugar.

Many of my clients who moved to the US from other countries have noted how sweet our bread tastes compared to what their palates are used to. Our fondness for sweetness has led to sugar being added to a number of foods you might not expect, from salad dressings to soups, spaghetti sauce, and even sushi.

According to the American Heart Association, American adults consume an average of 77 grams of sugar per day. That’s over 19 teaspoons worth, the equivalent of 15 four pound bags per person per year. The AHA notes that increases in sugar intake over the past three decades parallel weight gain, and excess sugar consumption is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Too much added sugar has also been tied to type 2 diabetes, and may negatively affect psychological health.

While you don’t need to nix sugar completely, it is wise to follow the AHA’s recommended limits of no more than six teaspoons worth of added sugar per day for women and nine for men, or 24 and 36 grams per day respectively.

Checking food labels is a smart strategy. The newly revised Nutrition Facts labels mandated by the FDA now list the added sugar content of a packaged food in grams. (Note: smaller food companies have until 2021 to adopt the new labels, but most brands have already switched to the amended version.) This important label change allows you to quickly see how much added sugar one serving of a food provides.

As for restaurant meals, larger chains, including fast food establishments, should provide nutrition facts on their websites. For example, one slice of a large cheese only thin crust pizza from Pizza Hut contains 5 grams of sugar, and a Starbucks grande pumpkin spice latte contains 50 grams. Scope out the places you frequent. You may be surprised how quickly those sugar grams add up!

Worried about your sugar intake? Try our 14-Day Sugar Detox Challenge to help rewire your cravings.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.