It’s no secret that most of us are consuming more sugar than is healthy for our bodies. But when people start trying to cut back on sugar, they often wind up confused: do you need to cut out fruit? Or is it just the sugar in candy and donuts? And what is this “added sugar” that everyone keeps mentioning in health circles? Where can we find added sugar on nutrition labels?
These days, added sugar is in almost everything. In fact, in my book, Start Here, I mention that 71% of products in the average supermarket contain added sugar. Food manufacturers make money off of delicious tasting food (and don’t get penalized if they market a product as healthy but still include unhealthy ingredients masked by confusing terminology and unregulated health claims), so it’s no wonder that they’re dumping the stuff into everything.
We all know that sugar is harmful to our health in excess quantities. Not only is it linked to weight gain and obesity, but it interferes with sleep (my 10-Day Reset-ers reported sleeping better than ever recently!), can lead to insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 diabetes, can increase the risk for heart disease, and so much more. The dangers of sugar could fill hundreds of books, so I’ll leave it at that.
I’m all about enjoying a piece of chocolate or a dessert when it is truly meaningful to you, and I enjoy fruit (in moderation) nearly daily. I don’t think that most people need to live a zero-sugar lifestyle. But learning to scout out and cut back on the added sugar that is so pervasive in everything we eat can go a long way for our health. In the following article, I will explain how to find added sugar on nutrition labels, and show you an example of what a huge difference this can make in the average person’s daily diet.
Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar
So what is added sugar anyway? To understand this, you must understand that all sugar is either naturally occurring (like the lactose in dairy products or the natural sugars in fruit, vegetables, and nuts) or added sugar. Added sugar is anything that does not grow or occur naturally in the food, but has to be added in by manufacturers. Added sugar can be from a somewhat healthier source (like honey or maple syrup), or it can be from a chemicalized, insulin-spiking substitute (like high fructose corn syrup). While the healthier sources like honey have the added benefits of nutrient content and lower fructose concentration, for the purpose of this article, let’s assume that all added sugar is equal, and that we are trying to avoid all of it. I do believe this, and this is the way I gauge the quality of my personal food intake. I would rather have 1g of honey than 1g of high fructose corn syrup, of course, but I would rather have 1g of high fructose corn syrup than 10g of honey. In my mind, all added sugar really is harmful in excess, even when it is from healthier sources.
How to Read the Label
The FDA has long been threatening food manufacturers to require a line item for added sugar on the standard nutrition facts panel. Originally, it was slated for 2018, but has been pushed back to 2021. Still, several food manufacturers are voluntarily including it, and this makes things much easier. If there is a line for added sugar, you can see it just like this:
In the absence of the added sugar line, it is a bit more difficult to discover how much sugar is from added sources. You will see a line item for total sugar, but this lumps both naturally occurring and added together. Once you see that there are more than 0g of total sugar, you next need to look at the ingredients. Of course, if you see an ingredient like dates, apples, or blueberries, you can infer that the sugar is from naturally occurring sources.
If, instead, you see the word “sugar,” the sugar content comes from added sources.
But what if you see neither of those? Unfortunately, there are over 60 FDA-approved names for added sugar that can be found on labels today. If you look for the following three things, you will be able to identify most of them:
- Sugar (or any phrase containing “sugar,” like maple sugar, coconut sugar, brown sugar, organic cane sugar, etc.)
- Syrup (or any phrase containing “syrup,” like brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, etc.)
- Anything ending in “-ose” (like maltose, sucrose, fructose, etc.)
And what if you see both a word for added sugar and a source of naturally occurring sugar? The ingredients must be listed in descending order of volume, so pay particular attention to the ingredients listed towards the beginning. For example, in the below example, there is naturally occurring sugar from raisins, dried cherries, and dates, but there is added sugar from corn syrup, sugar, and fructose, dextrose. There are more ingredients in the added sugar list, but the naturally occurring are closer to the beginning of the list, in general. For something like this, it is impossible to know exactly how many grams are from naturally occurring and from added sugar, but I assume it is about half and half.
Even in an example like this applesauce, where one source (apples) is naturally occurring and two sources (high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup) are from added sugar, we could assume that half of the sugar is added and half is naturally occurring. But take a moment and ask yourself if you really want that extra sugar from the added sources. Should applesauce just contain apples (and maybe some cinnamon)? There are plenty of brands out there that do not include added sugar, and when you are an added sugar sleuth, you will be better able to scout these out.
I recommend paying particular attention to the first three ingredients in any list. If you are buying something like ice cream or soda, of course you assume that sugar will be in high concentration. But if you are buying something like yogurt or bread, I recommend choosing varieties without any sugar in the first three ingredients.
Check Out the Difference!
To show you what a difference this can make, check out this day-in-the-life of someone who switches to paying attention to added sugar:
|Breyer’s Smooth & Creamy Lowfat Yogurt (1 container), Starbucks Blueberry Muffin||57g||Plain yogurt + chia seeds and berries,Mikey’s English muffin with no-sugar-added peanut butter||0g|
Grilled Market Salad with Fat-Free Honey Mustard Dressing
|32g||Homemade salad with grilled chicken, roasted vegetables, avocado, and 1 Tbsp. Tessemae’s Honey Balsamic dressing||1g|
Builder’s Protein Bar
|21g||Apple, veggie pack with hummus, Epic chicken sriracha bar||1g|
burger with 2 Tbsp. BBQ sauce, premade sweet potato fries, and broccoli
|20g||Turkey burger with 2 Tbsp. Sir Kensington’s ketchup, homemade sweet potato fries, and
|1 cup Blue Bunny frozen yogurt||29g||2
Ghirardelli dark chocolate squares
That adds up to 144g difference in added sugar, or the equivalent of THREE CANS OF COKE! Paying attention makes a huge difference, and I hope this article inspires you to watch out for added sugar in the products you regularly consume!
An aside… It is worth noting that I do not suggest giving yourself a free pass on all naturally occurring sugar. While I consume it myself, and am fine with my clients doing so, it still must be kept in moderation. If you’d like to hear my thoughts on how much sugar from fruit and other naturally occurring sugar is permissible, let me know in the comments and I will create a new blog post.
Now it’s your turn … Where are some of the sneaky places you’ve found added sugar?
This is eye opening! Especially because at first glance the meal on the left (with 159g), doesn’t sounds that unhealthy! The sugar really sneaks up on you!
I have been reading labels on everything since the reset. I would like to hear your wisdom on how much naturally occurring sugar is permissible. Thanks!
This is a gold mine of important information that can affect a person’s health so significantly. Thank you for sharing this with us, Megan!
I’m so glad it is helpful, Victoria! I talk about it all the time, so I’m glad to have it out there for people to reference!