Natural Versus Added Sugar

By Susan Epstein, MS, RD, CDN

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to defining carbohydrates and sugars. It gets more complicated when you see terms like “natural sugar” versus “added sugar”. What does it all mean?

Carbohydrates are one of the 3 macronutrients which can be used as energy sources (the other 2 are proteins and fat). A Carbohydrate is a large group of compounds found in foods and living tissues. Carbohydrates come in simple forms such as sugars and in complex forms such as starches and fiber.

The body breaks down most carbohydrates into the simplest form of sugar which is glucose. The body uses this glucose as energy to feed its cells.

There are 2 forms of sugar in the food we eat, “natural” sugars and “added” sugars. The natural sugars are found “naturally” in foods including fruit and milk. The natural sugar found in fruit is called fructose and the natural sugar found in milk is called lactose.

Added sugars include white, brown, or powdered sugars, syrups, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, and honey. These are added into foods to give them sweetness. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), American adults on average, get approximately 13% of their daily calories from added sugar. What exactly is wrong with eating too much sugar? The problem with added sugar in foods is that it adds extra calories to your diet, without providing nutritional value.

There are several potential health issues related to eating foods high in sugar. These include poor nutrition (if you fill up on sugary foods, you will be missing out on foods that provide important nutrients), weight gain, elevated triglycerides (which may increase your risk for heart disease), and tooth decay.
How can one tell if a food has natural or added sugar? In order to tell the difference, it will help to look at the ingredient list on the food label. For example, if a plain yogurt lists 7 grams of carbohydrates and 7 grams of sugar, and the ingredient list states that it is made up of nonfat milk and live cultures, then it’s safe to say there is no added sugar and the 7 grams of sugar is natural. Added sugars have higher grams of carbohydrates, which include sugar, corn, syrup, honey and various other sweeteners.

Labels can be misleading and confusing. Always check with your Registered Dietitian for clarification to determine whether a food is a good choice after bariatric surgery.