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Q: What’s the difference between sugar-free, no added sugar and unsweetened? Is one a healthier choice?

Reading labels on packaged foods is an important way to limit the amount of added sugar you eat. Understanding nutrient-content claims, nutrition labels and ingredient lists can help steer you toward healthier food choices.

But label information that pertains to sugars can be confusing. Here’s what you need to know.

Natural, added and “free” sugars

Not all sugars need to be avoided. Naturally occurring sugars in whole fruit (fructose) and plain milk and yogurt (lactose) come packaged with vitamins, minerals and, in the case of fruit, fibre and antioxidants.

Added and free sugars are the ones to limit. Consuming them in excess is tied to a greater risk of weight gain, obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and dental caries.

Added sugars are used by the food industry (and at home) to add a sweet taste to foods, or to perform other roles such as thickening, texturizing or browning. They go by many different names including brown sugar, cane syrup, honey, brown rice syrup, maltose, dextrose and glucose-fructose.

“Free” sugars, according to the World Health Organization, are added sugars as well as sugars naturally present in fruit juice and fruit juice concentrates. Once removed from whole fruit, these sugars are free to be added to foods for sweetening purposes.

Consider that 355 ml of pure orange juice has 34 g of free sugars (8.5 teaspoons worth). You’d have to eat two large oranges to consume the same amount of sugar.

Lactose in milk and fructose in whole fruits and sweet vegetables are not considered free sugars.

How much sugar is too much?

Sugar-intake guidelines released by the WHO in 2015, recommend that adults and kids reduce their intake of free sugars to less than 10 per cent of daily calories. That’s a maximum of 50 g (10 teaspoons) of free sugars a day for the average adult who eats a 2,000-calorie diet.

The organization stated that reducing free sugars to less than 5 per cent of daily calories would provide further benefits (i.e., no more that 25 g of free sugars a day).

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Sugar content claims

Health Canada permits five sugar-related claims on food packages. “No added sugar” means that a food does not contain free sugars (e.g., added sugars, fruit juice concentrate or fruit juice).

No-sugar-added foods are allowed to contain, however, artificial sweeteners (e.g., aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium) or sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol), additives you might not want.

Foods labelled “unsweetened” do not contain free sugars, artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.

“Sugar-free” (a.k.a. zero sugar, sugarless) means that a product contains, per serving, less than 0.5 g of sugar and less than five calories. Artificially sweetened drinks and sugarless gums, for example, can carry this claim.

“Reduced sugar” indicates a food that’s been processed or reformulated to contain at least 25 per cent less sugars than the regular version. The comparison food must be identified.

“Lower in sugar” or “less sugar” indicates that a product has 25 per cent less sugar compared with food in the same food group, but it hasn’t been reformulated to do so.

Nutrition facts, ingredient lists

In 2016, Health Canada released new regulations for disclosing sugar on the Nutrition Facts table and ingredient list. The food industry was given until 2021 to make the transition; however, new nutrition labels are already showing up on packages.

The amount of total sugars, listed on the nutrition label in grams, lumps together free sugars and naturally occurring sugars (this hasn’t changed), so you still can’t tell the amount of sugar that’s been added by the food industry.

Health Canada declined to include a separate line for added sugar content, information that would have made it easier for Canadians to reduce their intake of unwanted sugars. (By 2020, nutrition labels in the United States must include added sugars.)

A daily value (DV) is now given for total sugars, set at 100 g for a standard 2,000-calorie diet, which is close to the average total sugars intake of Canadians.

A DV of 15 per cent (15 g) or more is considered “a lot” of total sugar. Most foods that exceed the daily value are high in free sugars (e.g., sugary breakfast cereals, cookies, fruit juice, sweetened yogurt).

The updated ingredient list is helpful. All free-sugar ingredients are grouped together under the common name “sugars.”

The placement of sugars in the ingredient list will depend on the total weight of the sugar ingredients combined. (Ingredients are listed by weight, from most to least.)

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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