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Over the years, people have become increasingly conscious about which ingredients are in their food—especially when it comes to sugar. But until recently, it’s been impossible to tell which kind of sugar is actually lurking in the packaged foods you eat… and potentially hurting your health.
Right now, the only number displayed on the Nutrition Facts Panel found on packaged food labels is “Sugars,” which tells you the total grams of sugars found in that product. However, in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA noted the importance of differentiating natural sugars and added sugars, stating that, “when sugars are added to foods and beverages to sweeten them, they add calories without contributing essential nutrients.”
To make it easier for consumers to see exactly how much-added sugar is in packaged foods—and help reduce the burden of chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease”—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is making a major change to nutrition labels. By 2020, every food company will be required to update their nutrition facts panel with an “added sugars” line so people can separate the naturally-occurring sweeteners from the bad guys.
What the ‘added sugars’ line on a nutrition label really mean
With the current label, it’s hard to get a gauge of exactly how much added sugar is in a serving of food, and now that information will be available with just a glance. Added sugars are sugars and syrups added to foods and drinks during processing or preparation. This includes sugars from sugar and honey and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices in excess of the amount of sugar you would expect to see from the same volume of the same type of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.
How the ‘added sugars’ line will help you eat healthier
For someone following a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s the equivalent of 50 grams of added sugars.
It also helps with the confusion between added sugars and naturally-occurring sugar. While foods like honey, molasses, white refined sugar, and maple syrup are added sugars, the sugar found in foods like fruit or milk are not. Luckily, with this change, it will be easier to determine which is sugar vs. added sugar.
On a nutrition label, the grams of total sugar represents both sugars that are naturally-occurring in ingredients like fruit, as well as those that are added, like honey. The line that states “includes X grams of added sugars” reveals the amount of the total sugar coming from added sources. For example, in KIND’s Almond & Apricot bar, which includes ingredients like apricots and honey, the sugar from the honey is included in the added sugar amount while the sugar in the apricots is only counted in the total sugar amount because the sugar in apricots is naturally-occurring.
How your body processes natural sugar and added sugar differently and the difference in their impact on your health
Knowing these prime differences in what you’re eating might not seem like a big deal: sugar is sugar, right? Well, that’s not actually the case because of how differently your body processes them, as well as how differently they impact your health.
While you’re still reaping other benefits that come along with naturally sweet foods, that’s not the case with the added stuff. Naturally-occurring sugar—such as fructose in an apple or lactose in yogurt—comes along with other nutrients.
For instance, in an apple that contains fructose, you’ll also get other nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. From the yogurt that contains lactose (a natural sugar found in milk), you’ll also get calcium and plenty of other vitamins and minerals.
Honestly, for the most part, added sugar is straight sugar and can cause inflammation in the body when consumed in excess.
And, unfortunately, inflammation is just the beginning of the problem. Eating added sugar in excess has been shown to lead to a long list of problems, whether it’s an increased risk of weight gain, cavities, diabetes, or—in a recent study published in the journal Circulation—a higher risk of early death. It can even mess with your sleep. A small study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found those who eat less fiber and more saturated fat and sugar didn’t sleep as well, waking up more often and spending more time in lighter sleep stages.
By using up calories for foods with added sugar, you’re providing less space in your diet for nutrient-dense foods. For example, a cup of 100 percent orange juice is plenty sweet but contains only naturally occurring sugar, as well as vitamin C, potassium, and other nutrients. And it doesn’t use up any of your daily added sugar limit. But a serving of ice cream or candy would use up a portion of your daily added sugar.
How to navigate your sugar vs. added sugar intake
So, you know why added sugar should be limited—but how exactly should you approach sugar in your own life to make sure you stay your healthiest? According to Gorin, one rule of thumb to stick to is trying to get the majority of your sugar from natural sources and avoiding the packaged stuff as much as you can.
I would recommend eating whole fruits and purchasing 100 percent juice, which has nothing added to it. When you’re shopping for juice, words like ‘beverage,’ ‘drink,’ ‘-ade,’ ‘punch,’ or ‘cocktail’ are keywords to indicate that the product may not be 100 percent juice.
And in general, when it comes to added sugar, I’d recommend trying to eat at least some of your desserts and sweet treats without added sugar. Just because there’s a daily value for added sugar doesn’t mean you have to meet it!
When you snack on chocolate pudding, for instance, instead of the real thing why not try to make your own? You can use (bananas and unsweetened cocoa powder), you’ll be much better off down the line. Pay closer attention to labels and your sugar habits isn’t a fun job, but it’s one that can quite literally save your life.