Two words, differentiated only by a single letter: ‘s’. However, this one little letter actually makes a lot of difference, especially when you’re trying to decipher food labels! So which is the one you really want to know about, the one that gets added to all sorts of foods? You’ll find out here, plus all the info you need to make the best choice at the supermarket.
Two types of sugar
When nutritionists talk about sugars, we usually classify them as two separate types:
- The naturally-occurring forms of carbohydrate that are part of many healthy foods such as fruit e.g. fructose (a single sugar or monosaccharide) and dairy e.g. lactose (a double sugar or disaccharide). Fructose and lactose in fruit and milk products, respectively, are not toxic or unsafe. They are a normal part of whole foods that contain many other beneficial nutrients such as fibre or vitamins and are not considered a problem in a balanced diet.
- The refined crystals and syrups that get added to a lot of not-so-healthy foods. Sugar (for example, white, raw or brown sugar, icing sugar) contains sucrose which is a double sugar or disaccharide. It’s refined from cane sugar or sugar beet. This is the stuff that typically gets added to soft drinks, cordials, energy drinks, bars, biscuits and lollies to make them taste sweet. This is the sugar that we need to reduce our intake of as it contains nothing healthful and is nutrient poor. The syrups such as honey, rice malt syrup, maple syrup, golden syrup and agave are considered as forms of refined sugar. They are mostly mixtures of glucose and fructose with some sucrose
How sugars are defined on the label
Sugars and sugar are definitely very different in terms of their effects on health, but they get lumped into the same category and that’s why food labels aren’t as helpful as they could be.
On the label, you’ll find all sugars listed as a sub-group of carbohydrates. Turn to the back of any pack and run your eye down the left-hand column. You’ll spot carbohydrates (which is the sum of both sugars AND starches) and then directly under it, you’ll spy sugars.
However, this doesn’t tell you just the sugar added to the product by the manufacturer, it actually refers to ALL sugars in the product, both natural and added.
Searching for sugar
Let’s compare plain with chocolate flavoured milk.
On a label, you can read across the row of the Nutrition Panel to see that plain, unsweetened, full-cream milk has around 6 per cent sugars (which we know is all lactose coming from the cow). Look down the Per 100g column. See our examples below.
Flavoured, full-cream, milk has more – 10 per cent sugars. This is a mixture of that 6 per cent natural lactose PLUS added sugar (sucrose), so we conclude that around 4 per cent is added. We simply deduct 6 from the total of 10 to come up with the 4 per cent.
|Milk type||Natural sugars per 100g||Added sugar per 100g||Total sugars per 100g|
|Full-cream milk, plain||6.3% lactose||0||6%|
|Full-cream milk, choc-flavour, e.g. Big M||6.3% lactose||Estimated 4% sucrose||10%|
Now let’s compare plain with fruit or honey flavoured yoghurt.
On a label, you can read across the row of the Nutrition Panel to see that natural, full-cream yoghurt has around 5 per cent sugars (which we know is all lactose coming from the milk). Look under the Per 100g column.
Honey vanilla yoghurt has more – 10 per cent sugars which is a mixture of that 5 per cent natural lactose PLUS added sugar (sucrose), so we conclude that around 5 per cent is added. We simply deduct 5 from the total of 10 to come up with the 5 per cent.
Similarly, strawberry yoghurt has more – 11 per cent sugars. This is a mixture of 4 per cent natural lactose PLUS added sugar (sucrose) PLUS natural fructose from the fruit, so we conclude that around 7 per cent is from the sugar and fruit. But we have no way of knowing how much of each. I’d guesstimate it to be 4 percent from sugar (sucrose) with 3 per cent from the fructose.
|Yoghurt type||Natural sugars||Added sugar||Total sugars|
|Yoghurt, natural Greek, Jalna||4.8% lactose||0||5%|
|Yoghurt, Vanilla Creamy, Jalna||4.8% lactose||Estimated 5% glucose+fructose||10%|
|Yoghurt, plain, Chobani||3.8% lactose||0||4%|
|Yoghurt, strawberry, Chobani||3.8% lactose +3% fructose||Estimated 4% sucrose||11%|
Now let’s compare fresh pears with pears canned in syrup.
Raw pears contain around 10 per cent sugars as fructose.
On a label, you can read that canned pears have more 14 per cent sugars which is a mixture of that 10 per cent natural PLUS 4 added sugar (sucrose) from the syrup, so we conclude that around 4 per cent is added.
|Fruit type||Natural sugars||Added sugar||Total sugars|
|Pear, raw, unpeeled||10% fructose||0||10%|
|Pear, canned, in syrup||10% fructose||Estimated 4% sucrose||14%|
The sugar guessing game
So now you can see how it becomes a guessing game as to how much of the sugars are added and how much are naturally occurring. Especially if you aren’t comparing similar products side-by-side like we just did!
When looking at the nutrition information panel, remember that the term ‘sugars’ doesn’t distinguish between added or natural.
What shoppers really want to know is how much added, refined, sugar is present. As you can see, the tub of Chobani fruit yoghurt above has both added and natural sugars but there’s no way of working out how much of each it contains unless you know the exact formulation or recipe. At this point, it’s not feasible to analyse all foods for their individual sugars - nor would it help people eat a healthier diet.
In the US, the FDA is considering putting Added sugars on their label as part of their label upgrade.
Get sugar savvy
There are two simple ‘rules’ you can remember when looking for products with less added sugar:
- If it contains a considerable amount of fresh or dried fruit or milk e.g. fruit yoghurt or muesli or cereal with dried fruit, then you can expect the sugars content to be higher as some or all of the sugars will be coming naturally from fruit or milk.
- If it doesn’t contain any fruit or milk e.g. soft drink, cordial or confectionary, then you can bet that the sugars have been added, usually in the form of cane sugar (or in the US it’s often high fructose corn syrup which is similar nutritionally to sugar).
Check the ingredients list under the nutrition information panel to verify this.
Shopping tip: Compare similar products and choose the ones with the most nutrition (e.g. fibre, calcium, protein) and the lowest sugars percentage.
Guideline: How much sugar is OK for you?
Remember that the actual amount of sugars recommended will vary depending on your daily food intake (energy), which is higher for some (such as active adults, growing teenagers and those recovering from significant illness or injury), and lower for others (such as younger children, women and those who are sedentary).
Based on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 2015 guideline of less than 10 per cent of energy from added sugars, the average adult who consumes 8700kJ (2080Cal) can have a maximum of around 50g or 12 teaspoons per day.
See more on this here.