Start of Main Content
Health Information | 08/08/2023

The Facts About Sneaky Added Sugar

By  Kathryn Wilson, MS, RD, LDN, CNS
women looking at nutrition label on box

You are probably aware that sugar is a part of many tasty foods in the world, including candy, soda, and baked goods. But did you know that sugar is also found in foods like fruit, potatoes, beets, and even whole wheat bread? Luckily, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently made it easier to tell if a food contains added sugar by including “added sugars” on the nutrition facts label starting in 2020.

Because sugar is such a hot topic when it comes to weight management, health, and chronic diseases such as diabetes, many people have questions about different types of sugar, how sugar acts in the body, and how much sugar is safe and healthy to eat. Although the answer to these questions often depends on your body and medical history, we’ll explore a few general answers here.

What’s the difference between natural sugar and added sugar?

Naturally occurring sugar is found in foods like fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Foods containing naturally occurring sugar also tend to contain important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which help to support overall health. Another benefit of consuming foods with naturally occurring sugar is that they often contain essential nutrients like protein and fiber, which help fill you up and keep you full longer than foods without protein or fiber.

Added sugar is found in prepared foods and is included during processing. Added sugars include table sugar (sucrose), brown sugar, and honey, which can be found in ice cream, cakes, and candy. High fructose corn syrup is another type of sugar often used in soda, ketchup, and some barbecue sauces. Foods that contain added sugar are often missing the nutrients that foods with naturally occurring sugar have. Without those beneficial nutrients, they don’t help you to feel as full or energized after eating them.

What is the problem with added sugar?

Sugar itself is not harmful to the body, but eating too much sugar can increase the risk of unintentional weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, because foods with added sugar tend to taste good, it’s easy to fill up on sugary foods while missing out on other important foods such as lean proteins, fiber-rich vegetables, and healthy fats.

Eating a diet high in added sugar can increase triglyceride levels in the blood, which can negatively impact heart health over time. Because sugary foods often lack the fiber and protein that helps us to feel full after eating, we often have to eat more high-sugar foods to feel full and satisfied, leading to higher calorie intake and risk of weight gain over time. Experts are even finding that a high sugar diet can accelerate cognitive decline.

Sugar is studied in many forms, but there is great interest in sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), such as soda, specialty coffee and tea drinks, and even some juices. These ubiquitous beverages are turning out to be major risk factors for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. Researchers found an association between SSBs and cancer recurrence in people who have already had colon cancer.

Why is it so hard to limit my sugar intake?

The main reason sugar is so hard to limit is that it is added to a vast amount of our processed foods. Processed foods are often convenient and take less time to prepare and eat than non-processed foods, so for people looking to limit their sugar intake, it is important to spend more time planning and preparing your meals and snacks at home. Of course, this is often easier said than done.

Many people report an affinity for high-sugar foods in times of elevated stress. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, eating sugar may actually alter your brain’s activity to reduce feelings of stress. This can certainly make the habit of stress-eating even more difficult to break. It is important to note that eating sugar from natural sources such as fruit and dairy does not lead to the same habit-forming response as eating foods containing added sugar.

How much sugar is too much?

The amount of sugar each individual needs can vary based on their activity level, nutritional needs, and medical conditions. The World Health Organization suggests that adults and children limit added sugar to less than 5% of their total daily calorie intake. For someone on a 2000-calorie diet, that is 25 grams of sugar per day. According to the American Heart Association, women should limit their sugar intake to 6 teaspoons (or 24 grams) per day, and men should limit their sugar intake to 9 teaspoons (or 36 grams) per day. To put this in perspective, one 12-oz can of Coke contains 40 grams of sugar (or 10 teaspoons). This recommendation is strictly for added sugar since no evidence exists that naturally occurring sugar causes adverse health effects.

What can I eat instead?

Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that add sweetness to food without adding sugar or calories. These include saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda). There have been suggestions that artificial sweeteners should be avoided due to a possible association with increased cancer risk; however, there is no reason to fear artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than regular sugar, so they only need to be added in very small amounts to produce a sweet taste. The government must approve the safety of all food ingredients, including artificial sweeteners before they can be sold in food and beverage products. In the United States, the FDA has deemed the following artificial sweeteners to be safe:

  • Acesulfame potassium (Sweet One, Sunett)
  • Advantame • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
  • Neotame (Newtame)
  • Saccharin (Sweet'N Low)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Luo han guo (Monk Fruit in the Raw)
  • Purified stevia leaf extracts (Truvia, PureVia, etc.)

In general, artificial sweeteners can be a helpful tool to reduce your added sugar intake. For example, if you are trying to reduce your sugar intake, a diet soda once in a while as a treat can be a good substitute for a full-sugar soda. It is best to use artificially sweetened or “diet” foods in moderation, just like you would with sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.

Struggling with sugar cravings?

Try these tips to help you eat less sugar:

  • Practice mindful eating. This allows you to savor each bite so you can enjoy something sweet without overeating.
  • Choose dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. Dark chocolate isn’t as sweet, so it’s easier to control the portion.
  • Eat regularly scheduled meals and snacks. Sometimes we crave sugar when our blood sugar is low, which can happen if we wait too long between meals or snacks. Eating regularly throughout the day can help keep blood sugar levels stable.
  • Use non-food strategies to cope with stress. Go for a walk, call a friend, or take some deep breaths.
  • Choose a piece of fruit. Fruit can be just as sweet as candy, but it does not contain added sugar.

Overall, if you are truly in the mood for a sugar-containing food, allow yourself to have a serving of it and enjoy it! This is much better than trying to avoid the food and allowing the desire for the food to grow over time. People who completely cut out sugar-containing foods tend to be more likely to crave sweets or feel out of control when eating them.

About The Author

Kathryn Wilson, MS, RD, LDN, CNS

Kathryn Wilson, MS, RD, LDN, CNSC, joined Atrius Health in 2022 and sees patients at our Copley and Wellesley locations. Kathryn’s specialties include pediatric nutrition, eating disorders, and enteral nutrition.

More from this author