Sugar Breakdown

sugar cubesSugar is a hot topic today because of the belief that it causes all kinds of health problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. While sugar isn’t the only thing that contributes to health problems, we still need to limit how much of it we eat. There are a couple of things that make sugar a problem for our health. One problem is the amount of sugar we eat. As Americans, we eat about twice as much sugar as we should. Another problem is the type of sugar that we eat. Natural sugar is found naturally in foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. On the other hand, added sugar is added to a food or drink when it’s being made, like in packaged foods, soft drinks, or homemade desserts. Added sugar is the type of sugar that can contribute to health problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
To understand the difference between natural and added sugar, think about an orange versus orange juice. The orange has natural sugar, but when it is made into orange juice, a lot of sugar is added. The whole orange also has more fiber than orange juice, which helps prevent blood sugar spikes. Fiber is one reason why whole fruits and vegetables are better choices than juices. Like oranges, plain yogurt and milk also have natural sugar, but when flavored yogurt or milk is made, sugar is added. That added sugar is what we want to avoid.
We should limit how much sugar we eat daily to less than 10% of our calories. So, if you eat 2,000 calories every day, you should only have 200 calories or less from added sugar. That means you should avoid eating more than 50 grams or 12 teaspoons of sugar daily. To help you picture this, a 12-ounce can of cola has about 10 teaspoons of sugar. That’s over 80% of the amount of sugar most of us should be eating in one day!
All kinds of packaged foods and drinks can have added sugars, but the main sources of added sugar are sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened teas, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, donuts, and dairy desserts like ice cream. It can be hard to find added sugars in packaged foods’ ingredient lists because sugar has other names besides “sugar.” Here are some of those other names that mean sugar has been added:

  • Anhydrous dextrose
  • Brown sugar
  • Confectioner’s powdered sugar
  • Corn syrup (or corn syrup solids)
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltose
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Nectar (e.g. peach nectar)
  • Pancake syrup
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • White granulated sugar

You may hear that sweeteners like honey, agave, and cane sugar are natural sugars. While they may be grown naturally, they aren’t found naturally in the foods they’re added to and don’t have any health benefits. So they are still considered added sugars that can be harmful to your health. When you think about natural sugars, think about fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Sugar can also hide on Nutrition Facts labels because the label may not say if the sugar is added or natural. That’s because a food or drink may have both natural and added sugars. By the year 2021, all food labels will have to show added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label, making it easier to find how much of the sugar in a food or drink is added sugar. Some food labels already have this new label (see an example here). Also, while some packages may say the food or drink is made with “less sugar,” it might still have a lot of sugar. This is why it’s important to read the Nutrition Facts label to see just how much sugar is in a food or drink.
As you can see, sugar is in a lot of foods and drinks, making it hard to eat less of it. Here are some tips to help you eat less added sugar:

  • Drink more water and non-fat or low-fat milk instead of drinks sweetened with sugar.
  • Instead of soda, try a fruity fizz using seltzer water. Seltzer water is fizzy like soda, but has less sugar.
  • Pay attention when you’re grocery shopping and buy products without added sugar. We know that desserts and soft drinks have added sugar, but look out for foods like breakfast cereal, granola, frozen foods, granola bars, sauces, dried fruit, and other condiments that you may not expect to have added sugar.
  • Keep lower sugar snacks on hand. It’s easy to go overboard with added sugar when you’re snacking. Try satisfying snacks with less added sugar like an apple or banana with peanut butter; whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese; plain yogurt with berries; mashed avocado with whole grain tortilla chips; a hard boiled egg with a piece of fruit; or raw vegetables (like carrots, cucumber, broccoli, celery, or bell pepper) with hummus.
  • When you want a sweet treat, bake from scratch instead of buying sweets at the store so you can control how much sugar you add. Try using apples, bananas, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin for extra sweetness and flavor instead of sugar. Ripe bananas that have started to turn brown are naturally very sweet, so you may try mashing one up and adding it to muffin batter. This way you can add less sugar and still get a sweet taste.
  • You can still enjoy some food and drinks with added sugar. Just try eating less at a time and eating them less often.

What are some other ways you can eat less added sugar?
-Cara Mowery


© 2022 North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP)

North Carolina State University
Agricultural and Human Sciences Department

Cooperative Extension at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES)