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Added Sugars. Let’s Discuss.

Some food has natural sweetness. Some food has some form of sweetness added to it. They aren’t all the same.

Updated 11/2020

Recently, I presented on food waste to a group of over 80 college students connected with agriculture. At dinner following my presentation and our panel of experts, the conversation broadened. One student shared a story that a fellow student on campus said they bought organic sugar “because it was only 15 calories per teaspoon”.  Our whole table groaned. Why? Because #spoileralert: All table sugar is 15 calories per teaspoon, not just the organic option.

I was also in Louisiana for the American Farm Bureau Convention for work. Part of my experience there included farm tours, and since we were in Louisiana, this included sugar cane. Taking the time to learn the history of any food is awesome to understand how we get each choice on the menu and what the full story is.

This put the sweet topic (pun intended ;)) on my mind, especially as the Nutrition Facts label gets a refresh, including “added sugars“.

My, how things change, both for farms and for people choosing food at the store. Farmers grow what people want to buy. Choice in what provides sweetness to our menus has grown. The labels are changing, too. Choice is good and yet it can also lend itself to the complexities of the food conversation today.

What you need to know is that there are naturally occurring sugars in milk, fruit/fruit juices, and to some extent, vegetables/vegetable juices. Added sugars come in a variety of forms. Learn the lingo and read ingredient lists to see what your choices provide.

Yes, eating a whole piece of fruit is a great idea for a variety of reasons. Don’t forget 100% juice counts towards your fruit servings, too. So, if an option for a canned or frozen fruit choice is packed in 100% juice, you can see why this is appealing. Sweetness that multitasks with additional nutrition attached? Yep. Remember that all your choices matter, and variety is key.

When you are reading a label to pick the best options for yourself, it’s so important to think about these nuances. I don’t look at added fruit or veggie juices the same as I would heavy syrup because of the nutrition attached to the sweetness fruits (and to some extent) vegetables provide. Same is true for milk. White milk doesn’t have added sugar. The sugar you see in milk’s nutrition profile is naturally occurring lactose.

Fifteen calories per teaspoon for sugar is manageable in a balanced meal plan, too, if portion control is considered. Be honest about portions with all your choices, treat foods included. It all adds up.

How does the FDA define “added sugars”?

“The definition of added sugars includes sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type. The definition excludes fruit or vegetable juice concentrated from 100 percent fruit juice that is sold to consumers (e.g. frozen 100 percent fruit juice concentrate) as well as some sugars found in fruit and vegetable juices, jellies, jams, preserves, and fruit spreads.

For industry and those interested in the more technical version of the definition, please consult page 33980 of the Nutrition Facts Label Final Rule.”


Added sugars means added where they weren’t before, basically. Thus, if you are choosing food that has any type of sugar or sweetener added to it, ask yourself if those extra calories and/or additional sweetness of any type are needed. A can of fruit with fruit juice? You could drink the juice and eat the fruit.  A can of fruit with heavy syrup? If you like the taste of the heavy syrup version, drain off the extra syrup.

The bottom line is, there are a lot of right choices in the plethora of options on the shelf. Take a moment to understand the “rules” behind the scenes so you know what labels are telling you, and then use your best judgment. Still have questions? That’s normal. Email me or talk to another registered dietitian. That’s what we are here for.

By Kim Kirchherr

I am a dietitian working in food and fiber (agriculture) through retail, addressing opportunities to make things better for people and planet.