When it comes to health and nutrition, sugar seems to be the biggest buzzword these days. Most people are now aware that consuming too much can lead to serious health consequences such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and obesity. And it’s no secret that both adults and kids consume too much on average. Even though sugar is top of mind for parents, many are confused about how to identify natural vs. added sugars on nutrition labels, what the difference is, and how much is too much.
The problem is, nutrition facts tables aren't required to differentiate between naturally-occurring and added sugars (yet, anyways), and most consumers aren't aware that the World Health Organization recommends that adults and children reduce their daily intake of added sugars to less than 5% of their total energy intake. That means no more than 12-25 grams or 3-6 teaspoons per day for kids.
Natural sugar vs. added sugar: what’s the difference and why does it matter?
When broken down in our bodies, all forms of sugar serve the same purpose - providing energy and fuel for our brains and bodies - but there is a big difference in the source of sugar and the nutrient density of that source. And this matters.
For example, the sugars found in nutrient-dense whole foods such as milk products or fruit occur naturally. These foods also contain several essential nutrients that work together to provide health benefits. For example, milk contains lactose, a two-chain natural sugar that provides the carbohydrate source in milk (about 13 grams per cup), but it also contains 16 essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and potassium, as well as protein that all work synergistically to provide nutritional benefits.
Added sugar is different in that it has been added to foods by manufacturers to increase sweetness or improve flavour, such as in pop, candy, chocolate bars, desserts and many popular snack foods. Added sugars will be listed in the ingredients list (whereas naturally occurring sugars won’t be). So, if you see ingredients that mean “sugar” in the list (see list below), there has been extra sugar added to the product.
For example, if you’re buying a milk-based beverage, such as chocolate milk, any amount of sugar above the naturally occurring 13 grams per cup is “added sugar”, such as in most store-bought chocolate milk varieties, which can have +26 grams of sugar per cup.
Fruit contains naturally-occurring sugar as well (primarily fructose), which gives it its natural sweetness, however fruit is also nutrient-packed and hydrating, boasting 80-95% water, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Many fruits also have phenols, which are a type of antioxidant that has been shown to protect against diseases like cancer and heart disease.
The key to making sure that your kids (and you) stay within the recommended guidelines for sugar is to serve whole foods most of the time (meat, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products), and limit high-sugar processed and packaged foods.
That said, as a mom I also realize that although whole foods should dominate my kids’ diets, convenience, ease and portability are also key, so it’s important to know how to read a nutrition label, detect added sugar in a product and determine whether it’s a good choice or not.
Label Reading: 3 steps to choosing more nutritious, lower-sugar options
Step 1: Read the ingredients list
The first thing that you should do is check the ingredients list, to make sure that it contains real, wholesome ingredients (I look for less than 10 ingredients total), and that there isn’t a long list of additives, preservatives, artificial ingredients or sugars. Keep in mind that the ingredients are listed in order – the most to the least. Sugar is rarely listed as “sugar”, so it can be hard to spot it in the ingredients list. Here are some other ingredients that essentially mean “sugar”:
- Agave Syrup (or nectar)
- Cane Sugar
- Date Sugar
- Brown Sugar
- Corn Syrup
- Grape sugar
- Barley Malt
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Malt syrup
- Rice Syrup
- Beet Sugar
If the ingredients list is long and lists sugar-containing ingredients more than once (and high up on the list), red flags should go up.
Step 2: Look at the nutrition facts table:
The sugar content is listed under “carbohydrates” and in most cases, will represent the total sugar in a product (although some manufacturers are differentiating between natural and added now). First, consider whether the product naturally contains sugar (such as in the case of milk-based products, yogurt, or fruit-based products), and know that some of the sugar on the nutrition facts table is naturally occurring.
Naturally occurring sugar in whole foods (roughly, per cup):
Milk: 13 grams
Plain Yogurt: 12 – 16 grams
Plain Greek yogurt: 9 grams
Fruit (1 cup - chopped): 8-15 grams
Any sugar above and beyond these amounts is likely added. Remember, kids shouldn’t sugar consumption should be limited to no more than 3-6 teaspoons of added sugar per day total (less than 25 grams).
Step 3: Compare to another similar product
Compare the ingredients list and nutrition facts tables of two or three similar products (different brands), to see if there’s a significant difference. Make sure that you’re comparing the same portion size (at the top of the nutrition facts table will state the portion or amount that the nutrient facts table is based on) so that your comparison is accurate. Scan the ingredients list of both products to see which one has fewer ingredients and contains more whole-food ingredients (and less sugar, additives and preservatives) and then check the sugar content in the nutrition facts table.
The bottom line is, most kids today are consuming too much sugar, which over a lifetime can lead to a number of health consequences. However, sugar isn’t something to be feared, rather it should be understood and consumed in moderation. As a parent, offering your kids real, whole foods that are nutrient-rich most of the time and choosing carefully when selecting packaged foods is the best way to make sure your kids are getting all the goodness they need, without all the things they don’t.