When sugar is used as an ingredient to a processed food, it's called an "added sugar." It's used to enhance the flavors of snacks, beverages, and other processed foods; even some foods that don't actually taste sweet.
Sugar doesn't have any nutritional value beyond calories from carbohydrates, so the calories are sometimes referred to as "empty calories."
Finding Added Sugars
Sugary soft drinks, pastries, cookies, candy bars, syrups, jams, jellies, and pre-sweetened breakfast cereals are all obvious sources of added sugars. However, other foods such as salad dressings, flavored yogurts, instant oatmeal and fruit smoothies can also be high in added sugars.
Since there are several forms and types of sugars, it helps to know what you're looking for. Grab your packaged food and look for the ingredients list. If you see any of these, you've got added sugars:
- brown sugar
- high fructose corn syrup
- corn sugar
- corn syrup
- raw sugar
- turbinado sugar
If any words appear on the ingredients list, be sure to look at the Nutrition Facts Label to determine how much added sugar is lurking in each serving. It may be just a small amount, or it could be contributing lots of extra calories.
Reduce Your Added Sugar Intake
Start by reading labels and choosing the products that have the least, or better yet, no, added sugar. You don't have to give up sweet foods completely, just make healthier choices. Fruits and berries are sweet and contain no added sugars. Buy plain yogurt and add sliced fresh fruits or maybe just a little honey. Same with breakfast cereals. Skip the presweetened kinds and add a little sprinkling of sugar, or use a zero-calorie sweetener like stevia or sucralose.
What About Natural Sugars?
Many whole foods contain natural sugars, like fruits and vegetables. But there's a big difference; these whole foods also contain fiber, plus additional nutrients and phytochemicals that are usually lacking in processed foods.
Wait, What About Honey?
Honey is a natural sugar because it's made by bees rather than processed from beets, corn or sugar cane, but it can be used as an added sugar. Gram per gram, honey is the same as table sugar, so you need to use it wisely. Just because you see the word 'honey' on a food label doesn't automatically mean the food is more nutritious -- always look at the food labels before buying any packaged foods.
Johnson RK, Frary C. "Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars: the 2000 dietary guidelines for Americans--what's all the fuss about?" J Nutr. 2001 Oct;131(10):2766S-2771S.
Journal of the American Medical Association. "Caloric Sweetener Consumption and Dyslipidemia Among US Adults." Accessed April 20, 2010.
United States Department of Health and Human Services and United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. 6th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 2005.