Added vs. Natural Sugar: Know the Facts

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

Added sugar is rampant in packaged and processed foods today. Cookies, cakes, ice cream, and candy are obvious culprits, but did you know that sugar is lurking in foods you may not even suspect? 

Major food companies add sugar to ketchup, salad dressings, yogurts, and even peanut butter! Most consumers do not realize that sugar is added to these foods.  

Eating too much added sugar has been linked to heart disease, weight gain, and other health issues.   

The good news is that you can use the nutrition facts label and ingredient list to identify added sugar and make better food choices.   

Natural vs. Added Sugar 

Natural sugars are found in fruit, milk and plain yogurt, and some vegetables. Added sugars are those that are put into foods to make them sweeter, such as table and brown sugars.  

Maple syrup, agave nectar, and honey may appear to be “natural” but keep in mind that they are added to foods, unlike the sugar in fruit that is already there.  

The major difference between added and natural sugars has to do with how your body digests them. When you consume fruits and vegetables with natural sugar, you are also getting fiber that slows down digestion and leads to a more gradual rise in blood sugar. Plus, you get beneficial vitamins and nutrients from these foods. 

Eating added sugar from baked goods, soda, or candy causes a dramatic blood sugar spike in the absence of fiber. Following that spike, you may feel fatigued, moody, and hungry again.  

How Much Sugar is OK?  

Current recommendations from the American Heart Association suggest no more than 150 calories from added sugar (9 teaspoons) per day for men and 100 calories (6 teaspoons) per day for women.  

Keep in mind that these are maximum amounts. Eating less than these amounts may actually be ideal for most people.  

Natural sugars count towards your daily carbohydrate intake, which should mostly come from complex carbs like whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and dairy.  

However, remember that portion size is still important. One serving of fruit is typically one cup sliced or one small piece, and you should aim for two to three servings of fruit per day.  

Detecting Sugar on the Food Label  

Up until recently, the FDA did not require companies to distinguish between added and natural sugars on the food label. The label simply included a section for “Sugars” underneath Total Carbohydrates. The updated food label will soon include a subsection for “Added Sugars.” Most food labels will reflect this change by early 2020.  

Added sugar label example.JPG


Until these changes go into effect, you can use the ingredients list to identify added sugars in your food. Companies list ingredients by weight, and some foods may have sugar as one of the first few ingredients. Steer away from those if you are watching your sugar intake! 

Be sure to look for other names for sugar too. These include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, rice syrup, barley malt, and more.  

If you are craving something sweet, reach for fruit or sweet vegetables such as sweet potatoes and beets. You can also focus on keeping your blood sugars stable by eating balanced meals with the right distribution of macronutrients. This will keep you energized so you may not feel the need to reach for a sugary pick-me-up!  

Note from Healthy For Life Meals:  Our chefs use fresh ingredients that are naturally low in added sugar to make nutritious meals that taste great! While you’ll find some natural sugars in our meals, our menus are very low in added sugars – well below the AHA recommendations - and we use absolutely no artificial sweeteners.  For now, and until all food manufacturers come into compliance with the new FDA regulations, we're unable to differentiate between natural and added sugars on the nutrition fact panel on our labels. We're looking forward to the date in 2020 where all food manufacturers will be required to be in compliance with this regulation so that we're able to provide our clients with this crucial information as well. You can find more detail about the nutritional content of our meal plans at the following links: 1200 calorie plan2000 calorie plan1500 calorie/vegetarian plan.

Stef Keegan