This American Data Set, Act II: Sugar, Vice & Nothing Nice

September 8, 2015 by June Wu

[Editors note: As a bunch of data geeks, we always enjoy getting our hands dirty exploring interesting data. This is the second of a three-part series on data sets with a story to tell; you can find part one here. Also, check out the source data here.]

Take a moment to close your eyes and think about the taste of an apple. Sweet, slightly tart and floral, but definitely still sweet. Fruits taste good because they contain sugar, but they are sugar lightweights when compared to the sweetened beverages that dominate our diets. For instance, the sweetness level of an apple is less than half of that of the average sugared drink!

Coke, Orange Crush, and other similar sweet drinks are about as American as it gets, with the average American chugging 45 gallons of the stuff a year. That’s approximately 35lbs of sugar a year from soft drinks alone! Our health and waistlines are feeling the effects of excessive sugar consumption—so much so that the FDA has begun rolling out new nutrition label requirements for added sugars in an attempt to educate the public on sugar’s pervasiveness in their food.

By now we know that sugar, especially the added kind in sugary drinks, is bad for us. But just how bad is all that sweetness for us, really?

To the Data!

To explore this question, I decided to revisit high school measurement science and make a few comparisons by comparison of sugar concentration. I chose to use concentration because it is the most directly comparable metric to taste—things taste sweeter the more concentrated they are. For example: a normal 1.56oz Snickers bar and a medium-sized apple both have about the same total sugar content (20g and 19g, respectively), but the Snickers bar tastes significantly sweeter than the apple because all that sugar is in a much smaller package.

Now then, the data:

(Source: Caffeine Informer)

For clarity, fluid ounce (fl oz) is a measurement of volume, not mass, unlike regular ounces. To be precise, one fluid ounce is equal to 6 teaspoons. I know it’s confusing, because when there’s “ounce” in the phrase, we expect weight (or mass, rather, but this isn’t about to become Measurements Class 101). Grams is just that—grams of mass. Therefore, the grams of sugar per fluid ounce in our data represents the concentration of sugar, or mass of sugar per unit of volume. Remember that volume doesn’t necessarily only apply to liquids; solids also take up volume.

For reference, here are the concentrations of sugar of a few things that I’ve calculated with the help of trusty Google:

Topping our list of sugary drinks by far is Nescafe’s Ice Java, a concentrated coffee syrup with a whopping 24.71g of sugar per fluid ounce. How Nescafe manages to make a product that is one gram off of the concentration of pure sugar is beyond me. The average sugar concentration of this list (not including the drinks that have 0g sugar) is 2.85g/fl oz.

Wow, that’s sweet!

Looking at the data, we see that apple has a sugar concentration of 1.38g/fl oz, making the average sugared drink (2.85g/fl oz) over twice as sweet.

Most common soft drinks, such as Coke and Dr. Pepper, reside around the 3.50g/fl oz mark while some of the sweeter drinks, such as Sunkist at 4.33 g/fl oz, are almost double that of the sweetest fresh fruit (the banana).

Oranges are also quite sweet, due to their high juice content. However, it’s difficult to consume the same amount of sugar from eating fruit as you would from soft drinks: to match the 44g of sugar in a bottle of Coke, you’d have to eat about four medium-sized bananas, a significantly more difficult feat than drinking a can of Coke. Similarly, fruit juices usually require several fruits to make a cup of juice, doubling or even tripling the amount of sugar in fruit juice than is in a typical piece of fresh fruit.

Dried fruit, such as raisins are also quite high in sugar, but this is hardly unexpected as they are concentrated forms of fruit. Drinking liquefied raisins (not grapes) is unimaginable—it’d be like drinking jam!

A not-so-sweet ending

With constant exposure to such unnaturally high concentrations of sugar, it’s little wonder that our taste buds have become acclimated and addicted to sugar.

It’s also important to remember that though I mostly explored sugar concentration, total sugar content is important also. Often, less sugary drinks will compensate by being larger. Therefore while that bottle of Nestea has a lower sugar concentration (1.40g/fl oz), it still adds up to 28g of sugar in a 20 fl oz bottle. Throwing back three of those a day will add up to 84g of added sugar, 34g more than the 50g FDA plans on setting as the daily maximum in those new nutrition labels.