Total Sugars vs. Added Sugar – What You Need to Know

If you’re big into reading the nutrition label on food items, you may have noticed that some food labels are different than others. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated a new food label that must be in effect by January 1, 2021. While that gives food companies plenty of time to prepare for the change, many companies have already embraced the new food label. One of the biggest changes is a new “added sugar” section. We chatted with Registered Dietician Kristi Rolfsen to learn how you can use this new information to make better food choices for yourself.

Why is the added sugar section important?

“The current ‘total sugars’ section on the nutrition facts label includes naturally occurring sugars and added sugars, making it difficult to tell how much added sugar is in a product,” says Rolfsen. “The updated label separates the two by providing the grams of added sugar per serving. It also provides the percent Daily Value (%DV) for added sugars, which previously was not required.”

According to Rolfsen, added sugars should be less than 10% of your daily caloric intake. She says this new change can help you better identify foods with empty calories.

Does no added sugar truly mean no added sugar?

According to the FDA, added sugar is defined as sugars added during the processing of food or are packaged as such. “Added sugars on your food label might include simple sugars, such as dextrose or glucose, sugars from syrups and honey, or sugars from concentrated fruit and vegetable juices,” says Rolfsen.

As many of you might have already experienced, it’s tricky when it comes to fruit and vegetable juices. ”If a fruit or vegetable juice concentrate is added to a food for the purpose of sweetening, the FDA considers this an added sugar,” notes Rolfsen. “However, this doesn’t mean all 100% fruit and vegetable juices from concentrate are made completely from added sugars. Let’s take apple juice for an example. If 100% apple juice from concentrate is made to be equal or less than what would be the expected naturally-occurring sugar from 100% apple juice, the added sugars can be declared as zero. However, if the 100% apple juice from concentrate is higher than what would be the expected naturally occurring sugar, the extra sugars would need to be claimed as added sugars.”

“Simply put,” says Rolfsen, “if fruit or vegetable juice contains all the components of the whole piece of fruit or vegetable, added sugar does not need be claimed. If the fruit or vegetable juice is added for the purpose of a sweetener, is in higher concentration, or no longer contains all components of the fruit or vegetable, then the sugar needs to be declared as an added sugar.”

All other categories of added sugars should be declared as an added sugar.

What about starches and carbs? What is their relationship to sugar?

Read any blog about cutting sugar from your diet, and inevitably the subject of starches and carbs is going to come up. “To understand how these link together is understanding how food is made up and how our bodies digest the foods,” explains Rolfsen. “Simply put, starches are a type of carbohydrate, which are eventually broken down into simple sugars and used for energy.”

Sugar is a carbohydrate. “Monosaccharides, such as glucose and fructose, are the simplest form of sugar, meaning they cannot be broken down any further. Monosaccharides link together to form disaccharides, such as sucrose (table sugar) and lactose. Monosaccharides and disaccharides are known as simple sugars. These sugars are quickly absorbed in the body when consumed and can cause blood sugar levels to spike,” Rolfsen says.

Now, back to those starches. According to Rolfsen, “Starches are made of large, complex combinations of simple sugars and can be referred to as complex carbohydrates… Because of the complex nature, it takes the body longer to break these carbohydrates down. The slower digestion causes a steady rise in blood sugar rather than the sudden spike that can be seen with simple carbohydrates.”

Examples of starches include:

  • Corn
  • Beans
  • Pasta
  • Rice

So… what sugar is okay?

“Sugars are naturally occurring in many foods such as milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose),” says Rolfsen. “While these are simple sugars, they are found in foods that provide us with other nutrients, vitamins and minerals that you won’t find in a can of soda or candy bar. These foods also have the benefit of protein and fiber which slows the absorption of the sugar and makes us feel full. Our bodies need the energy and essential nutrients that are found in foods with naturally occurring sugars.”

So, go ahead and eat your fruit! And while you do, Rolfsen has one last bit of nutrition advice for you.

“Limiting added sugar intake is one piece to a healthful diet. It’s best not to focus on a single nutrient in a food, but rather to look at the food as a whole to make sure you are getting the nutrients your body needs. The goal of the new nutrition facts label is to provide consumers with the information they need to make the right choices for their diet.”