Not All Sugar is Created Equal


As dietitians, we frequently hear from patients, “That contains sugar.  Sugar is bad.”  Rarely in life are things so black and white, and sugar is no exception.  Sugar provides about 4 calories per gram (= 1 teaspoon) and comes from many different sources.  It’s where sugar comes from that is most important when considering how to incorporate it into a balanced diet.

Natural Sugar

Sugar is found naturally in many foods that are part of a healthy diet.  Do fructose, glucose, and lactose sound familiar?  Those are the forms of sugar found in fruits, grains, and dairy.  It’s important to realize, though, that with these foods comes more nutrition than just calories from sugar.  Fruits and grains contain vitamins and minerals important for many different functions in the body.  They also contain fiber which is good for digestion and helps keep you feeling full.  Dairy is not only a great source of calcium, but also protein.

Added Sugar

Added-sugar is different from sugars found naturally in food because it is, as the name suggests, added to the food.  Added-sugar is the one you need to be more vigilant about because it contains no nutritional value.  With added-sugar, you get the calories but none of the vitamins or minerals from the food itself.

Recent studies, like the one from the American Heart Association, have found links between diets that contain sugar-sweetened beverages (think soft drinks and sweet tea) and visceral fat.  This type of fat is located mainly around the midsection (belly fat) and wraps around a number of important internal organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines. Visceral fat affects how our hormones function and is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance – which may boost Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Read the Label

Companies are not required to distinguish between naturally-occurring sugar and added-sugar on a nutrition label.  They are lumped together as total sugar in the product.

limit added sugar

The new 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting calories from added-sugar to less than 10% of total calories.

So how do you distinguish between naturally-occurring and added-sugars?  Check the ingredient list.  Look for ingredients like maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, fruit juice concentrate, and sucrose to name a few.  For a more complete list, check here.

Tips to Reduce Added-Sugar Intake

  1. Choose naturally sweet foods like fruits and vegetables, like carrots or bell peppers.
  2. Cook from scratch.
  3. Look for “no sugar added” varieties of food.
  4. Limit eating or drinking:
    • Sugary beverages (soda, fruit punch, sweet coffee and energy drinks)
    • Sugary cereal
    • Candy and chocolates
    • Baked goods such as cakes, pastries and cookies
    • Certain flavored yogurts
      • tip: try plain, unflavored yogurt with 1/2 cup of fruit instead!
  5. Be mindful of hidden sugars in:
    • Whole-grain cereals and granola
    • Instant oatmeal
    • Frozen foods
    • Granola bars, protein bars and cereal bars
    • Pasta sauce
    • Dried fruit, canned fruit, applesauce and fruit juices
    • Baby food
    • Barbecue sauce, ketchup, salad dressing and other condiments

It’s important to practice moderation in your dietary lifestyle and sugar should be no exception.  Fruits, grains, and dairy along with protein and good fats all make up a healthy and balanced diet.  But that’s not to say you can’t enjoy a slice of cake on special occasions.