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Understanding Added vs. Natural Sugars

For more than two decades, we’ve been seeing the same set of information on nutrition facts labels plastered on most packaged foods in the United States. Just recently however, the FDA announced a few proposed changes to the label, one of which is to add a new line item for “added sugars.” This addition will show up under carbohydrates and total sugars on the labels.

With these proposed changes, the FDA aims to help consumers make smarter and well-informed choices on food in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, this update has sparked a lot of debate over just how helpful and clear the new nutrition facts label is. As well, some folks have been confused about what the difference is exactly between total sugars and added sugars.

How Sugar Adds Up in Your Food

Total sugars comprise all of the sugars that are present in a given food. This includes both natural sugars (e.g., lactose in dairy products or fructose in fruits) and added sugars. What are added sugars? They’re basically all sugars added to a food that aren’t naturally present.

Added sugars come with many different names. Some common examples include high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar and rice syrup. In the current nutrition label, added sugars are not differentiated from natural sugars. To figure out how much added sugars are in a given food, you’d have to look at the ingredients list to check for these ingredient names. Ingredients that contain words like syrup, nectar or words ending in -ose are likely to be a source of added sugars. Some foods like cakes, cookies and sodas may seem like obvious sources of added sugars. To get an idea of sources that may not be so noticeable, have a look at this list of nine hidden sources of added sugars.

When the new label rolls out, added sugars will appear on its own line. This will make it easier to watch for added sugars without having to look at the ingredients list. However, one possible area of confusion is that some consumers may think the “Added Sugars” amount is in addition to the “Sugars” (aka Total Sugars) amount, when in fact it’s part of the latter. For example, if 10 grams of sugar are added to a bottle of iced tea, which normally will not have any sugar present in it naturally, then the current label will show that it contains 10 grams of sugar per serving. In the updated nutrition label, 10 grams of sugar will be listed twice on the iced tea   once under “Sugars” and again under “Added Sugars.” As such, some folks argue that consumers may believe the total amount to be 20 grams of sugar.

Go for Natural Sugars Instead of Added

When sugar comes from a natural source, it’s often less processed and accompanied by other vital nutrients like vitamins and minerals. On top of that, natural sugar sources like fruit contain fiber, which slows down absorption and helps prevent spikes in blood sugar.

Currently, there’s no recommendation on how much natural sugars are healthy to eat. Natural sugars are considered to be part of your daily total carbohydrate intake.

For added sugars, the American Heart Association recommends that women get no more than 6 teaspoons (that’s 24 grams) per day while men should stay under 9 teaspoons (that’s 36 grams) daily.

If we’re eating too much added sugars and not exercising enough to burn off the extra calories, the excess amount of sugar can be converted to fat within our bodies. Consistently over-consuming added sugars can lead to things like weight gain, as well as increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

So, the next time you’re doing your grocery shopping, be sure to read the ingredient list and identify the added sugars included in the food you’re thinking about eating. Watch out for the many different names of added sugars and when possible, opt for whole foods that contain natural sugars instead.

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Jason is Zipongo’s registered dietitian and product manager. During his off hours, you’ll find him browsing the local farmer’s markets or hosting dinner with friends. For more nutrition tips, follow him @jasonlauRD and @zipongo.

Show Comments

2 thoughts on “Understanding Added vs. Natural Sugars

  1. Nice article, and I get the overall point about eating less sugar, and eating more healthy, but I have a problem with differentiating between natural sugars and added sugars. Fructose is fructose, no matter the source. If you eat 30 bananas, you are consuming a lot of sugar. I agree that there is more fiber in fruit, but the fructose from an organic apple is just as bad as the fructose from processed white sugar you buy at the store (though much easier to consume).

    We should just focus on moving our diets away from sugar and toward fiber. Concentrating on eating more fat, protein, and fiber, and much much less sugar will make us more a lot more healthy.

    1. Hi Brian,
      Thanks for your comment. We agree that reducing sugars in your diet is a good idea. However, cutting it out completely is not reasonable for most people, and our brains actually use glucose ( a form of sugar) as fuel. As a result, it’s always better to consume your sugars from a natural source.

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