Ask the Dietitian: What's the Difference Between Added and Natural Sugar?

What’s the deal with all they types of sugar out there? Are all sugars created equal? And are all sugars bad?
Related To:
Q:  What’s the deal with all the types of sugar out there? Are they all created equal?

A: Simply . . . no, all sugars are not created equal. But learning how to identify the different types is where it gets complicated.

Added Sugars

Whether it's run-of-the-mill granulated white sugar, high fructose corn syrup or something that sounds fancier, such as turbinado or raw sugar – these are all sweeteners. These ingredients are added to foods as they are processed or prepared. The distinct flavor and degree of sweetness will vary, but no matter which type you're dealing with, these sweeteners are a pure source of carbohydrate and have about 15 calories per teaspoon. When hefty doses of these types of added sugars are eaten, it can lead to weight gain and poorly controlled blood sugar levels.

The most significant sources of added sugar in the American diet are baked goods, candy, ice cream, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks.

Natural Sugars

Despite what food marketers might lead you to believe, there are only 2 forms of natural sugars – the kind found in milk (lactose) and the kind found in fruit (fructose). These types of sugar are also purely carbohydrates but from a nutritional standpoint, the food sources in which they are found have a lot more to offer. Milk and fruit provide other important nutrients like protein, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber – you'll be hard pressed to find any of these nutrients in candy, cookies and soft drinks. As an additional bonus, fiber and protein take longer to digest, causing a less dramatic spike in blood sugar. They also make you feel fuller for longer, providing a greater satiety value.

Food Label Confusion

One of the biggest conundrums surrounding the sugar debate is deciphering where sugar is coming from on a food label. The total grams of sugar listed in the nutrition facts doesn't differentiate whether the sugars are coming from added or natural sources. The only thing a savvy consumer can do is read the ingredient list. Since ingredients are listed in descending order, folks can determine where the majority of the sugar in that food is coming from.

Bottom Line: Check ingredient labels – choose mostly foods where natural sugars outweigh the added ones.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana's full bio »

Next Up

5 Surprisingly Sugary Foods

It may not surprise anyone that a 20-ounce bottle of soda can contain anywhere from 15 to 22 teaspoons of sugar per serving, but sugar is also lurking in less obvious places.

This Week's Nutrition News Feed

In this week's news: Mondays get even more meatless; the world learns what happens when a household bans sugar (hint: a book deal); and coupon-clipping takes a healthier turn.

Reading List: Alli Linked to Liver Failure, New Sugar Guidelines & Becoming a Locavore

In this week’s nutrition headlines: the danger in taking supplements, American’s drowning in sugar, and the popular weight loss pill Alli is linked to liver failure.

Sweet Alternatives to Sugar

Looking for a creative replacement for processed table sugar? These four natural sweeteners can bring new flavors and different levels of sweetness to your favorite recipes.

Low-Fat Foods: Good or Bad?

Low fat is out and healthy fat is in. Does that mean the era of low fat cookies is over? Not necessarily. Find out which fats are now recommended and how low fat foods can fit into a healthy diet.

Nutrition News: Healthy Food Choices, Fructose and Trans Fat Under Fire, Top Produce Picks in June

Researchers urge focus on healthy food benefits, fructose study has startling results, the FDA may ban trans fats, and get the top produce pick for June.

Food Labeling: Beware the “Health” Halo

Many folks read food labels to gain better insight on the foods they choose. However, with so many claims plastered on labels things can get really confusing. Even worse, food companies use these claims to push certain products and make you think they’re healthier than they really are. Curious about the top 10 food label boobie traps?

Label Decoder: Cane Juice

Have you been reading your food labels lately? You may have seen the sweetener “cane juice” under the list of ingredients. But is it really better than sugar?

3 Ways to Tame Your Sweet Tooth

Here are a few tips you can use immediately to reduce the amount of sugar in your daily routine and return your taste buds to normal.