Yes, there's a difference—and a clear winner.
While not purposely dubious, food label claims such as “sugar-free”, “no added sugar”, and “unsweetened” can be confusing to consumers. For sugar-conscious shoppers, distinguishing one claim from the other is downright stressful. The FDA closely regulates the use of sugar statements on food labels (see the FDA's Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide for more information), but many of us are still scratching our heads. Which one is better? Does "sugar-free" mean zero sugar whatsoever?
First off, sugar isn’t necessarily bad for you—it’s the way we consume it that can be detrimental to our health. While naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables is part of a healthy diet, added sugar in soft drinks and processed foods should be consumed at a minimum. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that no more than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake should come from added sugars. While a diet too high in sugar of any kind can increase your risk for cavities, eating too many added sugars can raise your risk for chronic disease such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Lastly, while the FDA approves the use of artificial sweeteners in food, controversy exists over their perceived health risks.
Yes, there's a difference between sugar-free, no added sugar, and unsweetened, but which one is better for you? Below, we decode these sugar claims (so you don't have to), plus break down common types of sugar to help you better understand nutrition labels and ingredient lists. Use this guide to make an informed food choice for you and your family the next time you shop.
Different Types of Sugars
Before we get into the nitty gritty of labeling, let’s take a look at common types of sugars—from sugar alternatives to sugar replacements—you may see on food labels. Keep in mind that naturally occurring sugars such as those in fruit are not required to appear in ingredient lists.
- Naturally Occurring Sugar: These sugars are found naturally in fruit (fructose) and dairy (lactose). These sugars are hard to overdo because they typically come in combination with fiber, protein, and good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Foods that pack a naturally sweet flavor such as pineapples, bananas, and sweet potatoes are nutrient-rich and part of a healthy diet.
- Added Sugar: Processed foods, baked goods, and soft drinks may contain added sugar to enhance their flavor or achieve proper texture. Added sugar includes baking staples such as brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, granulated sugar, and more.
- Artificial Sweeteners: Common sources of artificial sweeteners include foods often marketed as sugar-free—such as diet soft drinks and tabletop sweeteners. Common artificial sweeteners are labeled as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose on ingredient lists.
- Sugar Alcohols: Also called polyols, sugar alcohols are commonly used to sweeten sugar-free foods because they are not associated with tooth decay. Common sources of sugar alcohols include chewing gum and hard candy and appear on ingredient lists as sorbitol or mannitol. Keep in mind that they may have a laxative effect on some people.
According to the FDA, a food is considered “sugar-free” if it contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. It’s important to note the actual number of servings in the food because there may still be a small amount of sugar, even with a sugar-free claim. What’s more, sugar-free includes naturally occurring and added sugars, but doesn’t include artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. Check the ingredient list for artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols, both of which are used to enhance flavor in the absence of sugar. Common sources of "sugar-free" on food labels include chewing gum, pancake syrup, fruit preserves, candy, and more.
No Added Sugar
The FDA permits a food label to claim “no added sugar” if it “contains no sugars added during processing or packing, including ingredients that contain sugar such as juice or dry fruit.” In other words, as long as sugar isn’t added to the food manually, it can carry this claim. This term is not the same as sugar-free, since naturally occurring sugars, artificial sugars, and sugar alcohols may still be present. Look for this claim on foods such as granola, peanut butter, fruit juice, fruit preserves, and more.
If you see this term on a food label, it means the product contains no added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols whatsoever. Again, it doesn't mean the food is sugar-free, as it may have naturally occurring sugars. Examples of unsweetened food products may include almond milk, coconut milk, apple sauce, iced tea, and more. If you're looking to avoid artificial sugars or reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet, unsweetened foods are a solid pick.
So, which sugar claim do we think is the best choice? In all honestly, none of them. Here's why—whether sugar-free, unsweetened, or no added sugar, it's important to consider the full nutrition of any food carrying these claims, and ask yourself it's the right choice for your dietary needs. While unsweetened foods can be a better option, why not get your sweet fix from nutrient-packed, naturally-sweet whole fruits and vegetables? Lastly, building an arsenal of healthy low sugar recipes that minimize added sugars and rely more on natural sources of sugar for flavor will ensure the sweetest success.