Determining the sugar content of the foods you eat can be a lot more complicated than it should be. On the one hand, some items that you wouldn't think contain sugar actually do -- just check the ingredients list on a package of conventional white bread. On the other hand, many products make a variety of claims about not containing sugar: sugar-free, low-sugar, no sugar added. What does it all mean? And how can you choose the healthiest foods for you and your family?
First, let's examine what sugar is and where it comes from. From there, you'll be able to understand which kinds of sugar-containing foods to embrace and which to avoid.
When we talk about sugar, we usually mean the ingredient that makes desserts and soft drinks sweet. Technically speaking, however, sugar falls under the larger category of carbohydrates, along with starch and fiber. Carbohydrates are one of the three major macronutrients (alongside protein and fat), and in most diets, they provide us with most of our energy.
When we eat any food that contains carbs, our bodies break them down into sugar -- specifically, the molecule glucose -- so that it can enter the bloodstream and act as fuel for energy production. Thus, all carbohydrates are, in a sense, sugars because their fate in the body is to be turned into glucose.
Natural sources of carbohydrates in the diet include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and some dairy products. When we talk colloquially about sugar, we typically mean cane sugar -- a concentrated form of glucose and fructose -- that's been processed and added to foods to improve their taste, including soda, fruit juice, ketchup, and sweet treats.
All carbohydrates are categorized as either simple or complex. The main difference between the two types of carbs is the presence of fiber. Fiber adds bulk to our diet, supporting digestion and overall gut health.
Carbs are categorized as complex because of the fiber and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) they contain. Examples include whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. The additional nutrients in these carbohydrates are what make them so good for us.
Simple carbs are easier to digest than their complex counterparts. Less nutritious foods fall under this category, including sweeteners such as cane sugar, honey, molasses, and syrups. Candy, fruit juice, jelly, and white bread products are also considered simple carbs.
Because most simple carbs contain few nutrients other than glucose, they're metabolized quickly in the body, rapidly increasing your blood sugar. This can cause a problem for people with metabolic diseases such as diabetes. For others, most simple carbs offer only empty calories.
Looking at Labels
Every gram of carbohydrate provides four calories, regardless of whether it's from sugar, starch, or fiber. If you look at a food label, you'll find values for sugar and fiber indented underneath the carbohydrate section. The amount of sugar and fiber in a given food is included in the total number of carbohydrates listed on the label.
Unfortunately, there's no distinction on the current food label as to whether the sugar in a given product is natural or added, but a new food label released in May 2016 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture clarifies this difference.
So what do common claims like "sugar-free," "reduced sugar," and "no added sugar" really mean? Sugar-free means that the product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving; reduced sugar means that the item has at least 25 percent less sugar when compared to the original product; and no added sugar signifies that sugar hasn't been added to the food during processing. This doesn't mean that the product is sugar-free, however, as it may naturally contain carbohydrates. For example, a piece of fruit can be advertised as having no added sugar, even though the fruit itself still contains sugar.
Putting It All Together
So does that mean there's sugar in your salad, your brown rice bowl, and your afternoon apple? Well, yes, but that doesn't mean these carbohydrate sources are bad for you. Quite the opposite, actually: Fruits, veggies, and whole grains are some of the healthiest foods around.
Excessive consumption of simple carbohydrates and added sugars, however, can lead to weight gain and chronic illness. But by understanding the sugar content of food, you're armed with the knowledge to choose the best foods for you and your family. If you look for foods that don't contain added sugars and opt for complex over simple carbs, you can feel confident that you're making healthy choices.