Understanding the “Sweet Stuff” – Natural vs Added Sugars

Understanding the Sweet Stuff

Date: November 28, 2022
Categories: Health Focused

Outpatient Diabetes and Nutrition Education Program

As diabetes educators, we are asked questions daily about the difference between “natural sugars” and “added sugars”. This is especially true since the FDA’s Nutrition Facts Label was changed and the “Total Sugars” section now has a line saying “Includes ___ Added Sugars”.

Some of our clients are now under the impression that they only need to be concerned with the “added sugars” on the food labels versus the “total sugars”. Unfortunately, this is not the case. When natural sugars are highly processed, they will have fundamentally similar properties as added sugars.

A common example here is fruit juice. The food label will tell you that 8 ounces of orange soda has 23 grams of “added sugar” while 8 ounces of orange juice (without pulp) has 23 grams of “natural sugar”. While both will cause a rapid spike in blood sugar and a fall, the juice sounds “healthier”. If you chose to eat a medium orange instead, it would contain 10-13 grams of natural sugar as well as fiber and water. The fiber and water will fill you up and keep you from overeating. Also, your body will have to break down the cells of the orange before the sugar can be released and the sugar is absorbed into your blood more slowly.

Technically, the sugar we eat is broken down into glucose in our bodies and gets processed the same way. The benefit of “natural sugars” comes when they are consumed in whole foods. As mentioned above, the natural sugars in whole fruits are accompanied by fiber and vitamin C. The natural sugars in plain milk and yogurt are accompanied by protein and calcium. All of this can help to slow digestion and reduce the spike in blood glucose levels.

When it comes to “added sugars”, per the American Heart Association, the daily goal for women is about 24 grams (6 teaspoons) and for men, it is about 36 grams (9 teaspoons). To put that into perspective, a 12-ounce can of cola contains 10 teaspoons of sugar and 2 tablespoons of bottled BBQ sauce contains about 4 teaspoons of sugar. You can see how quickly this can add up, especially if the diet is high in processed foods. Some processed foods that contained added sugars include:

  • Smoothies
  • Bread
  • Canned fruit and dried fruit
  • Cereal and flavored oatmeal
  • Condiments and salad dressings (e.g., BBQ sauce, honey mustard, ketchup, French dressing)
  • Energy and granola bars
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Reduced-fat and reduced-sodium foods
  • Nut butter
  • Tomato-based sauces and soups
  • Crackers
  • Frozen meals
  • Plant-based milk (almond, coconut, oat)
  • Canned baked beans
  • Protein powders

A diet that contains mainly whole, unprocessed foods – vegetables, fruits, legumes, lean meats, nuts, seeds, whole grains, plain dairy, and eggs is the ultimate way to reduce added sugars. We realize that this can be a challenge with the current food prices. So, here are a few tips to help you start reducing sugars in your diet:

  • Cut back on sugary drinks
    • Instead, drink more water, sparkling water, herbal teas, black tea, or black coffee.
  • Change your desserts
    • Instead of cakes, pies, donuts, and ice cream, try fresh fruit, Greek yogurt with cinnamon, or dark chocolate.
  • Limit sauces, condiments, and dressings with added sugars.
    • Choose more herbs and spices, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, pesto, or mayonnaise.
  • Choose canned goods without added sugars
    • Avoid versions that are packed in syrup. Instead, look for “packed in water” or “no added sugar” on the labels.
  • Limit sugary breakfast foods
    • Breakfast cereals, even “healthier” versions, are often loaded with sugar as are muffins and pancakes. Instead, try plain Greek yogurt with added fruit and nuts or eggs with cheese and vegetables, or toast with nut butter (without added sugar).
  • Limit the items with high sugar content that are brought into the house
    • If you must keep them in the house, store these items in “hard to reach” places and have the fruits, vegetables, and nuts more easily accessible.