You made a goal to cut your sugar consumption, and that’s a good thing. Americans, on average, consume 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) every day, and it’s not just because we’re all chowing down on candy bars or cookies, either. (But, soda consumption doesn’t help that average.) Sugar is often added to many unsuspecting products in the grocery store. These include healthy options, like tomato sauce, salad dressing, and even ketchup. Even if you want to break up with sugar, it can be confusing to see different labels like “unsweetened,” “no sugar added,” and “sugar-free.” What’s the difference, anyway, and which is the healthiest choice?
Below, we asked nutritionists to decode the labels, so it will be easier to shop when you want to avoid sugar.
What does it mean when a food label reads “sugar-free?”
“Sugar-free is a labeling term regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” explains Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. “It means that a food contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving size indicated on the label. This includes sugars from added sugars, like honey or maple syrup, as well as those that are naturally occurring in foods, such as fruit or milk.”
Sugar-free foods may also still contain artificial sweeteners, such as stevia. Less than 0.5 grams doesn’t add up to a significant amount of calories or carbohydrates. But, you still want to watch your portion sizes. The 0.5 grams is likely for a single portion and can add up quickly.
What does it mean when a food label reads “no sugar added?”
“No sugar added means that no sugar was added in the processing of the food, but doesn’t mean [that] the food has no sugar,” says NYC-based Registered Dietitian Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. “Some foods have natural sugars, like fruit, vegetables, dairy, legumes, and grains.” She also says that a “no sugar added” food may still include sugar alcohols, such as diet sweeteners like sorbitol or xylitol.
What does it mean when a food label reads “unsweetened?”
“This means that no added sugars, artificial sweeteners, or sugar alcohols have been added to the food,” Gorin says. “An unsweetened food may contain naturally occurring sugars, though.” Some examples include coconut milk, some brands of applesauce, or iced tea.
Which is healthiest—sugar-free, no-sugar-added, or unsweetened?
Rizzo says that none of these labels are ideal. You still might be taking in trace amounts or forms of sugar substitutes that you aren’t aware of. But, of the three, “no added sugar” may be your best bet.
“I wouldn’t advise people to look for “sugar-free” foods because that can get really confusing,” Rizzo says. “Some foods like fruits and veggies, of course, have sugar in them without any added sugar. If you’re watching your sugar intake, look for no added sugar on the label. But, beware that there may be artificial sugar in the product instead.”
If you’re buying something packaged, Gorin says unsweetened is okay, too. “I like to recommend unsweetened because foods like unsweetened applesauce are often naturally sweet. So, you’re not taking in any added sugars or artificial sweeteners when you eat the food,” she says.
How To Cut Back On Sugar
Rizzo says that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to no more than ten percent of your daily calories. “That’s about 12 teaspoons (48 grams) per day on a 2,000 calorie diet.” Unfortunately, most Americans are still eating double this amount.
Opt for whole foods.
If you’re hoping to avoid or cut back on sugar, she says that your safest bet is to limit sugary beverages, like soda and sports drinks. You’ll also want to eat mostly whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
“If you’re trying to cut back on added sugar, definitely avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. Also, look out for sugar in sauces, dips, and dressings. The best way to avoid added sugar is to eat whole foods and limit processed foods,” she says.
Gorin also offers the following tips:
- Enjoy naturally sweet foods: “Eating a pear isn’t at all the same thing as eating a cupcake,” she says. “The sugar in fruits, like pears, comes from fructose and is naturally occurring—along with all the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in the fruit. You can also make your own desserts with plain fruit, like chocolate banana nice cream.”
- Swap out sugar: “Overeat sugary foods, like candy and cookies, and you might be craving more of them the next day. Swap added sugar for naturally sweetened ingredients, such as unsweetened cocoa powder or cinnamon,” she recommends.
- Make your own versions of your favorite foods: “Many store-bought foods, like salad dressing, may contain some added sugar,” she says. “You can easily whip up your own. For instance, I like to combine 100 percent grape juice with red wine or white vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil for a salad dressing that contains no added sugar.”
Cutting back on sugar can be difficult, but understanding the way food is labeled is a helpful first step. By reducing the amount of sugar in your diet, you may experience some amazing benefits. These include reduced cravings, weight loss, and even better skin.