Explaining Added Sugars vs. Natural Sugars

Lately I have come across article after article discussing “sugars” in our food supply. If you are confused by the sugar lingo and which ones to avoid, you are not alone! This is a confusing topic – hopefully I can provide a little clarification to make it simple to understand.

There are some foods that contain “natural sugar”. I define natural sugar as any food that contains sugar in its most basic form. These foods include fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and some plant products such as honey. These foods naturally contain a mixture of glucose, fructose, and galactose (aka sugars). As a Registered Dietitian, I do encourage my clients to consume fruits and low fat dairy, both of which are very nutritious and provide loads of vitamins and minerals essential to health. Contrary to some of the articles out there, bananas, grapes, and carrots are not the enemy

Then there is the other subset of sugars. I usually refer to these as “added sugars”. These added sugars are usually sugars or syrups which are added to products during processing that we consume in our regular diet. Some sources are obvious, such as baked goods, sugar sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks.  

Now here’s where it gets a little dicey. A dairy product such as milk which has natural sugars, can ALSO contain added sugars – a perfect example is chocolate milk. Some are hidden in products such as salad dressings, tomato sauces, condiments like barbecue sauce or ketchup, even instant oatmeal.

Don’t worry, eating some added sugars is not inherently bad for us. In fact, if we limit our calories from sugar to less than 10% of our calorie intake, we are doing a good job. So how do you make a good choice? The BEST way to watch added sugars is to check the ingredient list. If you see words such as cane sugar, cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, etc. - try to find the product with sugar far down the ingredient list. If sugar is the second ingredient, there’s a good chance there’s more in there than we need. If it’s the fifth or sixth ingredient, that product is likely a better choice. 

Christine Steinmetz