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All food & nutrition diet How to spot added sugar

How to spot added sugar

Bearded man drinking a glass of milk at home

17 November 2021

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3 min read

Key points

  • Naturally occurring sugar is different from added sugar. 
  • Sugar has a variety of names, so it may be tricky to spot sugar on a label.
  • Check the nutritional labels to see how much added sugar is in a food.
  • Healthy foods like fruit contain natural sugars, and also offer vitamins and minerals.

Sugar is unhealthy for our bodies, right? But fruit is healthy and there’s sugar in fruit. No wonder so many people are confused about sugar. 

Understanding the ‘sugar thing’ can be tricky for a range of reasons. Some foods have naturally occurring sugars, while others contain added sugars. But are they similar? 

According to the current Australian Dietary Guidelines, we should limit our intake of foods containing added sugar. But before we talk about how to spot added sugar, we need to understand a few more details about sugar, such as which (if any) sugar is healthy.

Registered Nutritionist Sarah Gray answers the ‘what is sugar’ question and offers some tips to help you spot added sugar in your food.

Naturally occurring sugars vs added sugars 

Sarah explains there are two types of sugar to look out for – naturally occurring sugar and added sugar.

Natural sugars may be found in fruit and vegetables, and as natural lactose in foods like yoghurt. These types of foods offer your body positive nutrients like fibre, vitamins and minerals. 

Added sugars are usually found in foods like lollies, soft drinks and chocolate. These foods usually contain little beneficial nutrients for your body.

“I think the differentiation between natural and added sugar is important. If we over consume cakes, lollies and soft drinks we’re eating a lot of added sugar and not really many beneficial nutrients. Try crowding your diet with foods that contain more natural sugars, so you get some sweetness with the added nutrients and goodness for your body,” explains Sarah.

In front of a pink background, a wooden spoon full of sugar points at some sugar cubes to represent what sugar is.

Added sugars found in foods like lollies, soft drinks and chocolate usually contain very little beneficial nutrients for your body

The health risks of added sugar

Eating too many foods with added sugar isn’t great for our health. So, if you frequently eat lots of foods that are high in added sugars, it could increase your chances of  long-term health conditions.

Eating fewer added sugars is a simple way to boost your health.

— Sarah Gray

What’s more, foods like lollies and soft drinks don’t give your body the valuable nutrients it needs. Rather than focusing on all the foods that contain added sugars, why not opt for naturally sweet fruits and natural yoghurts - these taste good and provide so much nutrition for your body. 

Tips for finding added sugar in nutrition labels

Sarah suggests looking for added sugar on the nutrition label of the foods you’re consuming. She offers two important tips to help you, which you could easily use when grocery shopping. 

Tip number one – learn the names 

It can be quite tricky to spot added sugar in foods because it’s not always called sugar. 

Sugar has a variety of different names, with common examples including: 

  • glucose
  • sucrose 
  • fructose
  • dextrose
  • maltose
  • maltodextrin
  • malt syrup 
  • golden syrup
  • disaccharides

Sarah says, “When you see the term ‘syrup’ in an ingredient name, it usually means that it is an added sugar, like malt syrup, maple syrup or agave syrup.

Also, look for the word ‘concentrate’ as this might be sugar. Words ending in ‘ose’ are usually sugars, such as dextrose and maltose.” Ask your nutritionist or dietitian for more advice on how to read nutrition labels

Tip number two – take note of the order

When you’re looking for added sugar on a nutrition label, ideally you want to be aware of anything listed as one of the first few ingredients on the packaging

What many people don’t realise is the ingredients are listed in order of weight. So, a product contains a higher percentage of an ingredient that’s at the start of the list than near the end of the list. For example, if a sugar ingredient is the first item listed, the product likely has a lot of added sugar compared to the other ingredients. 

Comparing which sugar is healthy with a plate of berries on the left and a plate with a slice of bread with hazelnut chocolate spread on the right.

There are two types of sugar to look out for – naturally occurring sugar and added sugar

Foods that are likely to contain hidden sugars

Look out for these common foods when trying to reduce added sugars. Even better, crowd your diet with naturally sweet foods, and you won’t have time or space to think about what you cannot eat, but can focus on all the things you can enjoy to nourish your body:

  • frozen yoghurts and sorbet
  • sports drinks 
  • biscuits
  • muesli bars
  • iced-tea
  • jam
  • alcohol (added sugar in this may be extra tricky to spot – especially if you get a cocktail mixed at a bar!)
A woman looking for added sugar while reading the nutrition label on a product in the supermarket.

It’s quite tricky to spot added sugar in foods because it’s not always called sugar.

What about the sugar content in fruit? 

A variety of healthy foods like fruit, vegetables and natural yoghurt contain natural sugars. They also have plenty of nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. 

While fruit contains natural sugars, it also contains important nutrients. Considering that most Australians eat only half of the daily recommended fruit intake, chances are that eating a bit more fruit is a great idea. For adults, two serves of fruit per day are recommended

But, remember to be mindful of your serve sizes when it comes to fruit juice as it is acidic and can increase the risk of dental erosion. It also has less fibre and other healthy nutrients than the whole fruit provides.

“Of course you can have some fruit juice if you want. Try and choose natural fruit juice and try for one serve or 125ml,” says Sarah. 

Manage your sugar intake

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Sarah Gray is both a Registered Pharmacist and Registered Nutritionist with a particular interest in health education and helping people to take small steps to big change in their health journey. Sarah is the Head of Health and Nutrition at healthylife.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board October 2021.

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