October 2021 Decoding Sugar on the Nutrition Fact Label
By Annie Campain
Recently, sugar has been under the microscope of health professionals, researchers, and consumers alike. The association between sugar and health is complicated and has caused a lot of confusion and stress. Not all sugars are equal and there are many factors that influence how they behave in the body. So, if you’re wondering “should I avoid sugar?” read on for fast facts and clear evidence-based answers.
Why is Sugar Concerning?
Excess sugar consumption is a common concern among Americans. The average American consumes around 17 teaspoons of sugar every day, most of which come from sugary drinks like sodas and juices. Sugary foods and drinks can replace foods that contain important vitamins and minerals. Excess sugar consumption—especially when coupled with a diet low in nutritious foods—has been associated with increased risk for inflammation and health conditions including heart disease.
Are all Sugars Equal?
Natural sugars are those that occur naturally in food such as milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose). Added sugars are those added during processing usually in the form of cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup. While both are fundamentally similar, natural sugars tend to accompany other nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals; whereas added sugars generally lack these key nutrients. Because of this, recommendations to limit sugar are typically referring to added sugars. The old nutrition fact label included all sugars (natural and added) together in one category “sugars,” which made it confusing for parceling out natural vs. added. The new label, however, differentiates between natural sugars and added sugars.
This image features updates to the nutrition facts label. The older label (left) grouped both added and natural sugars together into “sugars.” The new label (right) displays added sugars separately from those naturally contained in the food.
Should I Cut Out Sugar Altogether?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10% of overall daily calories (less than 12.5 teaspoons or 50 grams of sugar). The American Heart Association has stricter guidelines, recommending males limit added sugar intake to 9 teaspoons (36 grams) and women to 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day. Remember, this is referring to added sugars, not sugars found naturally in fruit and dairy.
While reducing added sugar intake to match recommended guidelines can be beneficial for health, there is still room for some in the diet. Consuming added sugar in moderation is acceptable and can contribute to quality of life. Overly restricting the diet can impact mental health and lead to negative feelings, cravings, preoccupation with food and behaviors like binging. Like the rest of the diet, everything has its place. While it’s important to be conscientious of added sugar intake, finding balance in the diet can improve health while still allowing for flexibility and enjoyment with eating.
How Can I Reduce Added Sugars in My Diet?
Added sugars are often found in more foods than just treats. If you’re interested in reducing your added sugar intake, start with reading nutrition fact labels for all foods, including sauces, condiments, breads, cereals, and bars.
Here are some ideas for reducing added sugars in your diet:
- Replace some of your sodas or juices with coffee, tea, or sparkling water.
- Find yogurts, granola bars, cereals, condiments, and sauces with lower amounts of added sugar.
- Try replacing flavored yogurts with plain ones or mixing half your usual amount of flavored yogurt with half plain yogurt. You can even top with fruit to add a little more sweetness.
- Try to cut added sugar in your recipes. Surprisingly, you can cut the sugar in many recipes by about 25% before there are noticeable changes. One great way to attempt reducing sugar in your recipes is to start small (cut 10%) then gradually increase this reduction until you notice a difference.
- Fruit such as dates, coconut, banana, and unsweetened applesauce are all great ways to sweeten recipes without the added sugars. Check out our recipe of the month: date-based peanut butter cups.
Get to know our author:
Annie Campain is a senior studying Nutrition and Food Science. She is most interested in working with individuals with eating disorders. She is also open to sports nutrition or working with individuals with obesity. An interesting fact about Campain: she is a twin!
For additional resources for healthy eating, check out these programs from our registered dietitian nutritionists. Find delicious and healthy recipes on our Recipes page! More health tips are also available at the College of Health and Human Sciences Pinterest board. Lastly, don’t forget to sign up for the KRNC monthly newsletter!