Learn the not-so-sweet truth about this common ingredient.
Whether it’s the powdered sugar you sprinkle over a doughnut, the brown sugar you mix into cookie batter, or the agave you use for margaritas, added sugar is a key ingredient in so many of our favorite foods.
Yes, sugar makes us feel good (at least in the moment), but it also has a darker, less desirable side. Consume too many added sugars and you’ll increase your risk for chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. And because added sugars lurk in everything from processed foods to baked goods to soft drinks, it’s easy to overdo it.
However, when consumed in moderation, added sugar can fit into a healthy diet. “You don’t need to completely eliminate added sugar from your diet. In fact, it balances recipes like salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. But you do need to be mindful of how much you’re eating and also know where sugar lurks unnecessarily,” says Brierley Horton, MS, RD, Food and Nutrition Director for Cooking Light.
To help you keep your added sugar intake in check, we’ve created the ultimate guide to everything you need to know about this often controversial ingredient. Learn common sources of added sugar, all different types you’ll see on food labels, ways to limit your intake, and more.
What Is Added Sugar?
Added sugars are sugars and syrups used to add a sweet flavor to processed or prepared foods. Additionally, added sugars may be used to improve the texture, color, body, and shelf life of a food. Also called nutritive sweeteners, added sugars add calories to food. They are not the same as non-nutritive, or artificial, sweeteners such as Aspartame and Saccharin that sweeten food without adding additional calories. Major sources of added sugars in our diets include:
- Soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruit drinks
- Cookies, cakes, and pies
- Pastries and doughnuts
- Ice cream, popsicles, and frozen yogurt
It’s also important to understand that sugar is an essential ingredient for baking. Sugar, whether granulated sugar, brown sugar, or corn syrup, ensures a tender, soft texture to cakes, muffins, cookies, and other pastries. Sugar also helps improve color and flavor of baked goods. Without it, you’d never have crème brûlée, meringue, brittle, or caramel sauce.
RELATED: 4 of the Biggest Myths About Sugar
The USDA 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting your intake of added sugars to less than 10% of your total calories per day. For a 2000-calorie diet, that’s about 200 calories or 12 teaspoons of sugar each day. Ideally, the majority of our calories should be coming from whole, nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality in our country. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 13% of our total daily calories come from added sugar—and this is simply too much.
Furthermore, the USDA reports that nearly 47% of the total added sugars in Americans’ diets come from sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, sport drinks, and energy drinks. Snacks and sweets account for 31%.
What are the major problems with eating too many added sugars? First off, sugar has little—if any—nutritional value. Sugar adds additional calories to food, and it doesn’t add any essential nutrients. Consume lots of sugary foods, and before you know it, you’ll find yourself over your daily calorie limit. Turn this into a habit, and you may gain weight, or even worse, develop type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
Limiting added sugars in your diet—and focusing on quality calories from whole, unprocessed foods—can help you lose or maintain a healthy weight. A diet low in added sugars is also associated with a decreased risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, and some types of cancers. However, because amounts of added sugars are not yet required to be listed on food labels, keeping track can be difficult.
The FDA released new food labeling requirements in 2016, but you’ll still have to wait several years until they’re fully implemented. Under the new requirements, labels must contain the amount of added sugar in grams and % daily value. Large businesses have until 2020 to comply, while smaller businesses have until 2021. Some food companies, such as KIND snacks, have voluntarily started listing this information on their products. You'll also find added sugar, as well as total sugar, included with every Cooking Light recipe.
Added Sugar vs Natural Sugar
Natural sugar is found in whole, unprocessed foods such as fruit, vegetables, milk, and some whole grains. Sugar in fruit is called fructose, while sugar in animal milk is called lactose. Unlike added sugar, foods with naturally-occurring sugars also pack essential nutrients such as fiber, protein, and antioxidants. Added sugars, on the other hand, have little nutritional value and quality as empty calories. Generally, you don’t have to worry about consuming too much natural sugar, given that foods that contain it are usually part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Types of Added Sugar
Whether it’s listed as maple syrup or date sugar or high fructose corn syrup, it’s all added sugar. Sugars do differ in flavor, however, and glycemic index levels (the rate at which a food causes our blood sugar to rise) can also vary. Agave, maple syrup, and coconut sugar have lower glycemic indexes, and even some antioxidant capabilities. On the other hand, granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, and even honey all have a higher glycemic index.
If a food or drink product contains added sugars, you can spot them on the ingredient list—but this isn’t as simple as it may sound. In a 2015 study titled, The Sweetening of the Global Diet, Particularly Beverages: Patterns, Trends, and Policy Responses for Diabetes Prevention, Dr. Barry Popkin found nearly 80 terms for added sugar on food labels. To help you decode food labels, we’ve listed ingredients that mask themselves as added sugar. Find eight of the most common types below—for detailed information about those, read this helpful guide.
Common Types of Added Sugars:
- Granulated sugar (other names: sucrose, table sugar, white sugar)
- Brown sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Corn syrup
- Brown rice syrup
Other Types of Added Sugars:
- Beet sugar
- Maple sugar
- Date sugar
- Cane sugar
- Palm sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Raw sugar
- Sorghum syrup
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Barley malt syrup
- Rice syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
Popkin, distinguished professor of nutrition at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also noted that fruit juice concentrate—which sounds healthier than other added sugars—is really nothing more than added sugar. Ingredients such as “apple juice concentrate” or “pear juice concentrate” simply means that the initial fruit juice has been stripped of all its nutrients except sugar, then evaporated. Even natural-sounding foods may contain fruit juice concentrates that are being masked as added sugars.
Are some added sugars healthier than others? Here’s what Brierley has to say: “A sugar is a sugar. Your body processes them all the same way regardless of where the come from. Yes, maple syrup may have trace amounts of disease-fighting antioxidants, but that doesn’t make it a health food. It’s still sugar; you should still be mindful of how much you’re eating or adding to recipes.”
Ways to Eat Fewer Added Sugars
Added sugar sneaks its way into 68% of processed foods and beverages in the US. To keep your intake in check, always scan nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Be wary of sneaky sources of added sugar that appear healthy, such as fruit-flavored yogurts, store-bought peanut butter, ketchup, chicken stock, bacon, whole wheat sandwich bread, salad dressing, and marinara sauce—and check the amounts to stay within your daily limit. Be careful with food labels that say “no added sugar,” as they may not necessarily be sugar-free. Naturally-occurring sugars, artificial sugars, and sugar alcohols may still be present in the food or beverage.
Another easy way to minimize your intake of added sugars is to cook more at home. In your own kitchen, you have complete control over the ingredients—and the amounts—you’re using. Learn ways to enhance a dish that don’t involve adding extra sugar. Experiment with foods that pack a naturally-sweet flavor, such as fresh citrus juice, pureed fruit, carrots, beets, caramelized onions, vanilla bean, and ground cinnamon.