What Does Added Sugar on a Food Label Mean?

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

For many years, if you wanted to know how much sugar was
added to a food, you could look at the ingredient list on the product’s label
and look at the Nutrition Facts label which would tell you the total amount of
sugar in the food. This was problematic for several reasons. Some food
manufacturers would use lots of different sources of sugar in a product – for
example, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, molasses, and brown sugar all might be
listed as ingredients. Since ingredients are listed in descending order of how
much of each is in a product, if there are lots of sources of sugar, none of
them might make it to the top of the list of ingredients. You might think the
product mainly contains peanuts but if you added up all the sugar sources,
total sugar might really be the most prominent ingredient. Secondly, back when
the label only listed total sugar, a product that had unsweetened dried fruit
would look like it had lots of sugar when really, that sugar was there
naturally in the form of fruit. 

The new Nutrition Facts Label, required on all foods as of
January 2021, tells the amount of added sugars that are in products. As the Food
and Drug Administration says
, “Added sugars include sugars that are
added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods
packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and
sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices. They do not include
naturally occurring sugars that are found in [cow’s] milk, fruits, and
vegetables.”

Recommendations call for limiting added sugar to 10% or less
of total calories per day. That’s because these added sugars don’t much if
anything for us nutritionally – they mainly supply calories. If you need 1600
calories a day, 160 calories or less should be from added sugar. Since sugars
have 4 calories a gram, that means 40 grams or less of added sugar per day for
someone who needs around 1600 calories a day.  There is no requirement for added sugars; the
10% of calories is an upper limit.

I was recently looking at some popular vegan ice creams and
noted that they had 30 grams or more of added sugar in a serving. Knowing which
foods have a lot of added sugar and having a perspective on what is a
reasonable amount of added sugar for you can help you choose foods and decide
how much of these foods you want to eat.