3 Ways of Looking at a Peanut Butter Sandwich—Or, the Challenge of Avoiding Added Sugar

September 24, 2014 | 11:12 am
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

If you haven’t yet seen the movie “the food industry doesn’t want you to see,” now—as the kids are heading back to school—is the perfect time. Preceding our Lewis M. Branscomb forum on science, democracy, and food policy last May, UCS hosted a pre-release screening of Fed Up that left audience members setting aside their sugary drinks and greasy tubs of popcorn in awe.  From Katie Couric, Laurie David, and director Stephanie Soechtig, this movie will change the way you eat forever!

The film’s producers are currently organizing a back-to-school challenge—a national campaign to break free from added sugar with a particular focus on kids and schools. They are asking kids, schools, parents and communities to give up added sugar for 10 days. Several of my colleagues and I took the added sugar challenge over the summer, and as we can all attest, it’s easier said than done. Eliminating added sugar from our daily diets requires changing how we think about our food—not just in terms of our personal choices but also our public policies.

The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich is often loaded with more sugar than desert.  Photo Ibán/Flickr.

The classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich is often loaded with more sugar than dessert. Photo Ibán/Flickr.

1) Added sugar is everywhere

Nothing says school lunch or after school snack like the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Fluffy white bread. Rich, creamy peanut butter. And sweet, gooey grape jelly. Mmmmm!

But how much added sugar is in that PB&J lunch or snack? It may surprise you to know that your kid’s healthy seeming sandwich—it’s just bread, peanuts, and fruit, right?—could well contain more added sugar than dessert.

Grams of Sugar Teaspoons of Sugar
2 tablespoon of Jiff Creamy Peanut Butter 6 1.5
1 tablespoon Smucker’s Concord Grape Jelly 12 3
2 slices Pepperidge Farms Farmhouse white bread 8 2
Total 26 6.5
American Heart Association Recommendations for maximum daily sugar intake Women = 25

Men = 37.5

Women = 6

Men = 9


To put this “healthy” sandwich in perspective, a serving of Oreos (3 cookies) has 14 grams or 3.5 teaspoons of sugar. This sandwich has almost double. And it exceeds the American Heart Association’s recommendation for maximum daily sugar consumption of sugar for women and more than half the recommendation for men.

2) Eliminating added sugar

Although I am hoping you will never look at a PB&J sandwich the same way again, there are alternatives to the high-in-added-sugar version above. Substitute artisan or other bread with no added sugar for the go-to garden variety white bread. Replace the jelly or jam with real fruit. And use only peanut butter with no added sugar.

The sandwich pictured below, which I ate for lunch today, is made from sprouted seven grain bread, banana slices, and peanut butter with only one ingredient: organic roasted peanuts. Finding bread and peanut butter with no added sugar can be challenging, but it is possible. I used 2 slices of Food for Life’s 7 Sprouted Grains bread and 2 tablespoons of MaraNatha’s organic creamy peanut butter.

This peanut butter and banana sandwich I had for lunch contains no added sugar. Photo: Deborah Bailin.

This peanut butter and banana sandwich I had for lunch contains no added sugar. Photo: Deborah Bailin.

3) Labeling added sugar

The food industry would like us to think that the ubiquity of added sugar in our food is the result exclusively of our personal choices as consumers. We want sugar, says the food industry (and those who represent them), and so they give it to us. Everywhere. In everything from salad dressing to soup to yogurt.

As the Fed Up sugar challenge illustrates, however, it’s hard to avoid added sugar, even when you’re trying to. Contrary to the personal choice argument, the food industry is going out of its way to mislead us about the science on sugar, “bury the data,” and interfere with science-based policies. Given recent research showing that sugar has addictive qualities, it is hardly surprising that food manufacturers are offering us more and more of it—they know we will buy it. And that doesn’t give much credence to the personal choice argument.

Currently, the FDA is considering changes to the nutrition facts label that would include labeling added sugar. Labeling added sugar would give us more control over our food choices by providing us with better information. Since the current label does not distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugar, making good choices can be confusing.

My peanut butter and banana sandwich is a perfect example. The bread and the peanut butter each contain one gram per serving of sugar, but to know whether that is added sugar or naturally occurring sugar, I had to look beyond the nutrition facts label, which only lists total sugar, to the ingredients—and then, for the bread, I had to go online and consult Dr. Robert Lustig’s Shopper’s Guide to the 56 names for sugar to be sure.

It simply shouldn’t be that hard to figure out the sugar in our food!


It’s not just peanut butter sandwiches loaded with hidden added sugar. Many seemingly healthy foods are high in added sugar, too. Read our report Sugar-coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar to learn about tactics sugar interests use to hide the truth.

Join the Fed Up movement

What can you do? Bring the movie “the food industry doesn’t want you to see” to your community. Join the Fed Up National House Party Day! Invite your friends and family over to watch the movie at a viewing party. You can even get a screening host guide that will help you generate an impactful post-screening discussion.

And get your friends and family–especially the kids–to take the Fed Up Back-to-School Challenge. As I can attest, lifelong good habits start early!