Learn how to spot and avoid the sugars that can have a negative impact on health. 
Credit: Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images

Not all sugars are created equal. By knowing more about the types of sugars in the foods you consume, you can find ways to cut your sugar intake without completely giving up sweets. 

According to a recent survey, 74% of consumers in the United States are trying to reduce sugar in their diets, and for good reason. Consuming too much sugar is linked to an increased risk for chronic inflammation, which has been shown to increase risk for obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, pulmonary disease, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and even allergies.

Here, we look at how you can balance the sugar in your diet by paying attention to the type of sugar in the foods you eat. 

Natural sugar versus added sugar

There are two ways that sugar can show up in foods — those that are naturally occurring and those that are added during processing. Whether sugar occurs naturally or is added plays a major role in how it impacts the body. 

Natural sugar

Natural sugar is found in fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and dairy products. When sugar is naturally present in foods, it's joined by other items that provide nutritional value for the body — things like fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and protein. These items act as a buffer, slowing down the absorption of sugar and reducing the insulin spike that it can create.  

Added sugar

Added sugar, the sugar that is added to foods during processing, is the big culprit when it comes to negative health outcomes. Adults in the United States consume an average of 17 teaspoons, or 270 calories, of added sugar each day. While those daily numbers may not seem high, they add up. Seventeen teaspoons of sugar each day adds up to more than 67 pounds of added sugar in a year.

The WHO, CDC, and American Heart Association all recommend cutting added sugar intake between 6 to 10% of our total calories each day. In a 2,000 calorie diet, that would amount to less than 200 calories, or 13 teaspoons, of added sugar each day. 

Using the glycemic index

Originally developed as a tool for diabetics, the glycemic index (GI) is a tool used to measure the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose levels. According to the Glycemic Index Foundation, high GI foods cause blood sugars to spike and crash; while low GI foods are digested and absorbed more slowly. 

The GI also relates back to natural sugars versus added sugars. Foods containing natural sugars also have additional nutrients and fiber to slow down digestion and absorption of sugar into the blood stream, making them more likely to be lower on the glycemic index. Meanwhile, food and drinks with added sugar typically cause quick spikes in blood glucose levels, making them more likely to be higher on the GI.

To find out the GI of common foods, the University of Sydney has an online calculator that allows you to search for and view the glycemic index of a number of packaged and natural foods from around the world. 

7 ways to choose better sweets 

1. Avoid sugary drinks. 

In a typical American’s diet, 24% of added sugars come from drinks. A 12-ounce soft drink can have 126 calories worth of added sugar. That one soft drink alone can put some over the American Heart Association’s recommendations for daily added sugar.

2. Limit refined sugars.

The more refined a food is, the farther it has been taken from its natural source. Refined sugars like granulated sugar, powdered sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup offer no nutritional value for the calories they add.

3. Choose sweeteners closest to their natural form.

Honey, agave syrup, and maple syrup are all forms of sugar. Each of these sugars come from a natural source and offer additional health benefits that refined sugars lack.

4. Try dates as a sweet treat.

Dates are nature’s candy. Dates are high in natural sugar, but also high in fiber. Once pitted, this sweet fruit can be put in a blender or food processor and used as a healthier base for baked goods, candies, and other sweet treats. 

5. Cook more meals at home.

The easiest way to reduce sugar is to simply eat whole foods. Eating food that doesn’t come from a box or a bag is your best bet for avoiding refined sugars while bulking up on the nutrients your body needs. No time to meal plan? The Cooking Light Diet offers nutritionist-approved, delicious meal plans, recipes, and shopping lists to streamline home-cooking for you and your family. There's even a SmartCarb track that curates meal plans and recipes with minimal added sugars and refined carbohydrates. 

6. Check ingredient labels.

When purchasing any processed food item, read the ingredients label: If any form of sugar is listed in the ingredients, you know it’s added sugar. There are a whopping 61 ways that sugar can be listed on an ingredient list, so be on the lookout for ingredients that end in -ose and those that include the word “syrup” or “juice,” as they are all added sugars. 

7. Watch out for sneaky sugars

Packaged foods often included added sugar in items you would not expect. Pasta sauce, salsa, hummus… the list goes on.  Often these sugars are not added for taste, but to provide shelf stability, color enhancement, or improved texture. These sneaky sugars do nothing to satisfy your sweet tooth and they can add up.


Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta, Georgia based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally.  She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.