Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar: What You Need to Know

What is added sugar, anyways?

Added sugars, as the name implies, are processed/refined and added to foods and beverages to sweeten them. They provide no nutritional benefit and consuming them in excess has been shown to contribute to obesity and inflammation, which increases the risk for developing chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Natural sugars are those that occur naturally in foods. They are found in milk, fruit, and whole grains. They are important energy for your brain and muscles that come packaged with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants!

How do I know if something has added sugar?

soda on shelves
Added sugar is in lots of processed food and drinks, like soda.

The most common place to find added sugars is in processed foods and drinks like desserts and soda. However, added sugars can be hiding in many foods you might not expect. Currently, they’re not required to be listed separately on nutrition facts panels (although that change is coming soon!), but you can identify added sugars by scanning the ingredients list.

Ingredients are listed by weight, with the first ingredients making up the majority of the food. So, if you see any of the following terms in those first few items or even further down on the list, that food has been sweetened with added sugars

  • Sugar (granulated, natural, raw, powdered, invert, or brown)
  • Corn syrup (high fructose corn syrup)
  • Cane juice or cane syrup
  • Honey
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses
  • Fructose, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, and maltose
  • Fruit juice, concentrate, or nectar

How can I eat less added sugar?

Love soda? Try drinking mineral or sparkling water with sliced fruit, berries or cucumber.

Start with plain yogurt and flavor with fresh or frozen berries. Be sure to check the ingredients on packages of frozen berries- fruit should be the only one!

Try sliced apples, bananas, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and other spices to sweeten up plain oatmeal.

oatmeal with blueberries
Flavored oatmeal and yogurt can have lots of added sugar. Try flavoring plain versions yourself with fruit or spices.

Salad dressing can be a surprising source of added sugar. Try making your own or using oil, vinegar, or lemon juice.

Choose canned or packaged fruit in its own juice or water, not heavy or light syrup.

Try to buy foods that are closest to the form you’d find them in nature. Broccoli from the produce section won’t contain added sugars, while frozen broccoli in cheese sauce most likely will. Similarly, fresh berries won’t contain added sugar, but dried cranberries will.

You don’t have to give up treats like cookies and cakes entirely. Just try to reduce how often you indulge and the amount you eat. And, if you can make them at home, go for it! When you’re in control of the ingredients you may find you can reduce sugar in creative ways:

  • You can substitute half of the sugar in your favorite quick bread, muffin, cookie, or cake recipe with unsweetened applesauce.
  • Or, add a few tablespoons of water to 1 cup of mashed banana and mix until it’s a smooth consistency. Then use to replace up to 1 cup of sugar in your recipe.
  • Reduce the amount of liquid by about ¼ cup for every 1 cup of applesauce or mashed banana you use.
Fruit is a sweet replacement for sugar! Try replacing some sugar with mashed banana in baking recipes, or freezing bananas to make ice cream with no added sugar.

Ice cream fiend? Try making your own frozen treats:

  • Banana ice cream: blend 1-2 frozen bananas in a blender or food processor until smooth. Enjoy right away for a soft-serve texture, or freeze for an hour for a firmer treat.
  • Creamy popsicles: blend 1 cup plain yogurt, 1 cup frozen fruit, and 1 tablespoon of honey in a blender. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze for three hours.

Read more about small diet changes that can have a big impact!

Meghan Perkins 150x150

Meghan Perkins is Project Angel Heart’s registered dietitian. After a semester studying baking and pastry arts at culinary school, Meghan quickly found her passion for clinical nutrition and transferred to the University of Northern Colorado to earn her bachelor’s degree in dietetics. Meghan has worked in clinical and private practice settings, educating patients about how their food choices impact their health with an emphasis on CKD, diabetes, heart disease, celiac disease, and weight management. In her free time, Meghan enjoys exploring Denver by bike with her husband, trying new coffee and tea shops, hiking in Crested Butte, and relaxing with her dog Barney.