Primary Care

Understanding the difference between natural sugar and added sugar

Pregnant woman shopping in a supermarket. Choosing fruits and putting them in a shopping cart.


Sugar comes in many forms and goes by several names, often making it challenging to distinguish between natural and added sugars. Understanding the difference can help you make healthier food choices.


By Shantala Sonnad, MD, Family Medicine, Nuvance Health Medical Practice 


It is surprising how much sugar is hidden in the food and drinks we consume daily. Sugar is found in foods like bread, candy, fruits and vegetables. Sugar is also in beverages like milk, soda and sports drinks. Finding a balance between foods and drinks with natural sugars and limiting your intake of added sugars can keep you energized and promote overall health.


What is natural sugar? 


Natural sugar is found in whole, unprocessed foods such as fruits, vegetables, honey and milk. On the nutrition facts label, the “total” sugars represent the amount of natural sugar in the product.


What is added sugar?


Added sugar refers to sugars or syrups added during processing, preparation or at the table to sweeten or enhance flavor. Common identifiers of added sugar include words ending in “ose,” such as sucrose, glucose, dextrose and fructose. Other names for added sugars include high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, raw sugar, cane sugar, molasses, syrup and fruit juice concentrates.


Foods with added sugars include candy, cookies, cake, doughnuts, ice cream and soda. Excessive added sugar consumption can increase the risk of weight gain, obesity, inflammation, cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.



How can I tell how much sugar is in my food?


Check the nutrition facts label on the package to see how much sugar is in your food. The nutrition facts label lists total sugars and added sugars, along with the percent daily value (DV). Generally, foods with added sugars are found in processed foods, which are commonly located in the center aisles of grocery stores. Whole foods with natural sugars are often found along the perimeter. To avoid excess added sugars, try “perimeter” shopping for fresh produce.



How much added sugar is OK to eat?


Refer to the nutrition label to determine if foods are low or high in added sugars. According to the FDA, 5% DV or less is a low source of added sugars, while 20% DV or more is a high source of added sugars. The American Heart Association recommends the following daily limits for added sugar:

  • Men: 9 teaspoons or 36 grams (roughly 150 calories)

  • Women: 6 teaspoons or 25 grams (roughly 100 calories)


Talk to your primary care provider about how much sugar you should consume daily. Sugar intake varies from person to person.



Does sugar free, reduced sugar and no added sugar mean the product is healthy?


Some products appear healthier than they really are by the way they are advertised. Here’s what each claim means:


Sugar free: Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.


Reduced sugar: 25% less sugar than the regular version of the product.


No added sugar: No sugar added to the product during processing or packaging.


How can I reduce sugar cravings?


Reducing your sugar intake can help decrease sugar cravings. Replacing sugary snacks like chocolate chip cookies with healthier alternatives such as a handful of almonds with dark chocolate chips can satisfy your cravings and make you feel fuller longer. Staying hydrated can also help curb cravings, so keep your water bottle close! Exercising can also help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce cravings.



How to make healthy sugar choices


Pay attention to the added sugars on the nutrition label and try to limit your daily intake. If you have a sweet tooth but want to make healthier food choices, try swapping out candy for fruit, such as strawberries, pineapple and watermelon. Not only do these fruits contain natural sugars that will satisfy your sugar cravings, but they are also hydrating and a great snack to keep you cool in the sizzling summer heat.



The bottom line: Eat foods with sugar in moderation. You don’t have to eliminate sugar completely, just be mindful of hidden added sugars in processed foods. Choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. Foods with naturally occurring sugars are always best!