Added Sugars

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If you’re a label reader you know that “added sugars” now appear on food labels. They are a separate line under total sugars. Labels must list the amount of added sugar per serving of food. In addition, the ingredients list must identify the sweeteners that have been added to the food.

This label change is a result of research strongly correlating added sugars with overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancers. The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the American Heart Association have both long recommended the reduction of added sugars in our diets. Food labels can help us to be aware of these sugars.

So, what is the difference between added sugar and naturally-occurring sugars? An added sugar is defined as any nutritive sweetener that is added to a food or beverage during processing or preparation. They are frequently added to cookies, crackers, granola bars, cereals, spaghetti sauce and many other products. Sugar-sweetened beverages (like lemonade, soda pop, sweet tea, and juice drinks) contribute the largest amount of added sugar to our diet.

Let’s talk a little about what dietitians call “nutritive sweeteners.” According to an Ohio State University Extension publication, these are sometimes called caloric sweeteners or simply sugars. They provide calories to the body. In addition to sucrose (common table sugar), other nutritive sweeteners include agave, brown sugar, powdered sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose (milk sugar) maltose, maple syrup, molasses, nectars, and raw sugar. 

Some of these are naturally-occurring sugars that are part of the carbohydrates in fruit, vegetables, and unflavored milk and yogurt. These would not be considered an added sugar on a package label. So, you may see a label that has some sugar but no added sugar.

You may wonder how “natural sugars” like honey fit into this situation. 

When you look at honey by itself it does not have added sugar. It is a sugar. But if honey is added to a food, it would be considered added sugar.

I know some folks say that honey is “natural” so how can it be added. But don’t get hung up on the concept of “natural”. Natural means it exists in nature and is not man-made. By definition many sugars are considered “natural” including white sugar (because it comes from the sugar cane), agave, coconut sugar, and maple syrup. When they are added to a product they are added sugars.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we limit the amount of added sugars in our diets to <10% of all calories. That’s 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a person eating a 2,000 calorie per day diet. The average American consumes 270 calories of added sugars each day. That’s about 17 teaspoons of sugar! They recommend that children under the age of two consume zero added sugars. The average toddler consumes 104 calories per day from added sugars. That’s more than six teaspoons of added sugar, when that number should be zero! 

Food and beverage manufacturers are not always to blame. There are other kinds of added sugars in our diets. These are those sugars that we add ourselves to our foods. These can be things like honey in our tea, flavored creamer in our coffee, or maple syrup on pancakes.

The take home message: Watch out for those added sugars (natural or otherwise) in your diet. Sugar can be sneaky. 

The Ohio State University HYG-5584

Food and Health Communications

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910.253.2610.