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Core Knowledge


Sugar: A Primer


Sugar is a naturally occurring nutrient that makes food taste sweet and has four calories per gram. What are all the forms of sugar? What's the difference between them? And why are they in so many of our food products? This article covers the many sides of sugar, or sugar-like substances, from sugar alcohols to sucralose, so you'll know what's in food products, and how to avoid it.

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Where to Find Sugar

Sugar is sneaky. It's found in a variety of foods from fruits and vegetables to milk and cereal. It may be used as a sweetener added to foods or drinks, as a natural preservative that binds water to prevent the growth of microorganisms, or as a bulking agent, which gives texture to a variety of food from jams to frozen products.

One form of sugar is fructose, which is the sweetest, naturally occurring sugar and is found in fruits, berries, and honey. It is 1.5 times sweeter than sucrose, which is table sugar. Another common sugar is milk sugar, which is lactose. Foods we can consume contain both naturally occurring sugars and added sugars.

Artificial sweeteners or non-nutritive sweeteners contain zero calories and no carbohydrates. These sugar substitutes are used in place of sucrose (table sugar) to sweeten foods and beverages. Currently, the most common of these are saccharin (Sweet'N Low), aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal), and sucralose (Splenda).

One major item that can up your sugar quotient is coffee. While some people like it black, many like a little extra flavor and not only are you getting extra sugar, you're also getting extra calories. A single packet of sugar (15 calories), 1 pump of syrup (20 calories), or opting for flavored coffee beverages like frappucinos (up to 239 calories) can add up quickly. Now multiply the sugar and calories by several cups of coffee or multiple blended beverages a day.

Whether you're choosing pure sugar or an artificial sweetener, moderation and variety is the way to go. Always choose the least-processed foods to help keep your sugar consumption to a minimum.  

Hidden Sources of Sugar

Sugar also makes its way into many other foods that you might not usually think about. Here are the top sources of hidden sugar:

  1. Yogurt – Flavored yogurt and yogurt drinks can 20-40 grams of added or natural milk sugar per serving. Choose flavored yogurt with 15 grams of sugar or less per serving, or choose the plain variety and add fruit or honey.
  2. Cereal – Some sugared cereals and flavored oatmeal contain 15 or more grams of sugar per serving. Opt for high-fiber, plain cereal or oatmeal and add fresh fruit or cinnamon.
  3. Protein drinks – These milk-based drinks can have up to 35 grams of sugar per bottle. Skim milk has 11 g of sugar, while soy milk has about 12 grams of sugar per 8 ounces. Make your own smoothie or protein shake with berries, Greek yogurt, or low-sugar protein powder.
  4. Dried fruit –  When fruit is dried, the natural sugar is concentrated. The portion size is smaller, less satisfying, and has more sugar than fresh fruit. For example, a 1/4 cup serving of raisins has 30 grams of sugar.
  5. Fruit juice – Juice, whether it’s 100% juice or not, is missing fiber and is concentrated with sugar. An 8-ounce serving of 100% apple juice has nearly 30 grams of sugar and no fiber.

Types of Sweeteners


Saccharin has been used as a non-caloric sweetener in foods and beverages since it was discovered more than 100 years ago. Used in Sweet'N Low, saccharin is described as being 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar. It's often blended with other sweeteners due to its bitter aftertaste. 


Used in NutraSweet and Equal, aspartame contains two amino acids, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine. Together, they make foods taste sweeter (reported to be 200 times sweeter than sugar). People with PKU (phenylketonuria) shouldn't use aspartame because of the risk to their health.


Sucralose is a low-calorie sweetener reported to be 600 times as sweet as sugar. Used in Splenda, it's become a favorite of the food industry because it's tolerable to high temperatures and high and low pH, has a pleasant taste, and is low in calories (2 calories per tablespoon) The Federal Drug Administration and World Health Organization approve the use of sucralose in products. It's found in a variety of products from soft drinks and ice cream to chewing gum, salad dressings, and baking mixes.


Stevia, which is currently found in dietary supplement form, is now also being used in soft drink products. A recent report found that Splenda can decrease gut bacteria and change the pH of stool. Stevia could fast become a popular alternative to chemically-derived non-caloric sweeteners. Stevia, which is reported as being 200 times sweeter than sugar, naturally tricks the body into getting something sweet without the calories. But that doesn’t mean a diet coke with Stevia is a healthy drink. Natural foods and drinks with minimal amounts of added sugar are best. You should still drink water and unsweetened tea most of the time for hydration.


Dextrose is the commercial name used for the crystalline glucose produced from starch. It has four calories per gram. If the crystallized dextrose contains no water, it's listed as dextrose anhydrous or anhydrous dextrose in the ingredients. If the crystallized dextrose contains one molecule of water, it will be listed as dextrose or dextrose monohydrate. Food manufacturers may list dextrose produced from cornstarch as corn sugar in the ingredients, or, if derived from rice or wheat, as rice sugar or wheat sugar. Dextrose is used in many baking products like cake mixes and frosting, snack foods like cookies, crackers and pretzels, as well as desserts.

Crystalline fructose

Crystalline fructose is simply pure fructose in crystalline form. It contains four calories per gram and offers benefits such as improved texture, taste, and stability when used in products. When combined with other sweeteners and starches, crystalline fructose increases sweetness, cake height, and mouth feel of foods and beverages.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

High-fructose corn syrup is corn syrups enriched with fructose. It also has nearly equal amounts of glucose and fructose. High-fructose corn syrup is most commonly found in beverages, canned fruits, dessert syrups, and other foods. Read "The Truth About High-Fructose Corn Syrup," for more information.

Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are a group of low-calorie, carbohydrate-based sweeteners. They deliver the taste and texture of sugar with about half the calories (1.5 to 3 calories per gram). They’re used as a food ingredient, often to replace sugar, cup for cup, in many sugar-free and low-calorie foods. They aren’t commonly used in home food preparation, but are found in many processed foods.


Polyols vary in sweetness from about half as sweet as sugar to equally as sweet. They add sweetness and texture to many sugar-free foods, and are frequently combined with low-calorie sweeteners. Polyols are used in foods such as sugar-free chewing gums, ice cream, candies, frozen desserts and baked goods. In addition to mild sweetness, polyols provide the bulk and texture of sugar in food products. They can be found as xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, isomalt, lactitiol, hydrogenated starch hydrosolates, hydrogenated glucose syrups, erythritol or a combination of these. People with diabetes will often eat foods with sugar alcohols, because they are converted to glucose more slowly, require little or no insulin to be metabolized, and don't cause sudden increases in blood sugar. These foods may cause bloating and diarrhea when eaten in excess. 

Side Effects of Too Much Sugar

A diet high in sugar can wreak havoc on your body and your brain. A few of the possible side effects include: 

  • Increased heart attack risk. Research has shown that drinking at least one 12-ounce sweetened beverage a day can increase heart attack risk by 20 percent. Learn more.
  • Higher blood pressure. Fructose, commonly found in soda and other junk foods, can cause your blood pressure to jump and stay high. Learn more.
  • Affected brain power. Adults with higher average blood sugar (glucose) levels perform worse in test of memory, speed, and multi-tasking compared to adults with lower blood sugar levels, according to scientific research. Learn more.

10 Ways to Reduce Sugar in Your Diet

  1. Reconsider your coffee. Instead of the flavored latte, opt for a plain latte and add a sprinkle of cinnamon.
  2. Choose fresh fruit. Fresh fruit is lower in sugar and higher in fiber than dried fruit and fruit juices so you’ll stay fuller longer.
  3. Swap out sugared cereal for high-fiber varieties. Look for cereal with at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 10 grams of sugar per serving.
  4. Sweeten with fresh fruit. Add your own sweetness to plain yogurt with fresh fruit instead of flavored yogurts.
  5. Skip sugary drinks. Replace sugar-laden beverages like soda and lemonade with iced tea. A 12-ounce soda contains anywhere from 40-50 grams of sugar whereas unsweetened iced tea contains no sugar.
  6. Eat fruit for dessert. Have fresh fruit. Limit desserts to once a week or on occasion, and if you like a sweet ending to meals during the week, opt for fresh fruit.
  7. Cut back on cocktails. Choose light beer or wine, which contain less than 10 grams of sugar, instead of fancy cocktails. Consider mixing your hard alcohols with club soda to avoid the calories in tonic, soda or juice. Drinks like daiquiris and pina coladas pack nearly 60 g of added sugar.
  8. Limit condiments. Every tablespoon of ketchup contains a teaspoon of sugar and a tablespoon of barbecue sauce contains over 2 teaspoons of sugar.
  9. Don't add sugar. Choose foods that are naturally sweet or try adding a sprinkle of cinnamon instead of sugar atop your favorite cereal or yogurt.
  10. Enjoy it occasionally. You don’t have to cut out sugar all together. Be choosy about which foods you must have and cut out foods you can live without. If dessert is something you really enjoy, cut out things like condiments or sugary cocktails.

Alternatives to Sugary Snacks

There are plenty of foods that are satisfying without being packed full of sugar. Here are some of our favorite sugary snack alternatives:

  • Fruit leather
  • Fruit Snacks
  • Dried Fruit dipped in dark chocolate
  • Sugar-free gum
  • Instant hot chocolate
  • Raisins
  • Frozen chocolate sorbet bars
  • Popcorn
  • Pretzels
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Granola bars


Tags: Weight Loss, Food, Beverages, Carbohydrate