Nutrition
Reviewed by

Shifa Fathima

What's Better? Sugar - Free, No Added Sugar, or Unsweetened"

Imagine buying a product with labels that describe the sugar content with phrases such as ‘Sugar-Free’, ‘No Added Sugar’, or ‘Unsweetened’. All these words sound so similar. Right? Do all these labels mean the same things, or do they have different connotations? 

Sugar-free does not necessarily mean zero sugar. There is an underlying difference in all the terms used above. As per the FDA, Sugar-Free is food with less than 0.5 grams of natural or added sugar. ‘No Added Sugar’ means there is no manual addition of sugar in the packaged food. Food labelled ‘Unsweetened’ does not contain added sugar, sugar alcohols, or low-calorie sweeteners.

How did these varying nomenclatures come about? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans report (2015-2020) recommended that daily consumption of added sugar not be more than 10%. The report resulted in the origin of product categories like ‘Sugar-Free’, ‘No Added Sugar’, and ‘Unsweetened’. Although the FDA has backed the usage of artificial sweeteners, the health risks they pose continue to be a raging debate among doctors and health experts. 

Different Types of Sugars

While most of us know about table sugar (sucrose) and fructose, several other kinds of sugar, like natural and artificial sugar, are used in food processing. If you are a fitness enthusiast, knowing which sugar is going into your bloodstream can remarkably change your diet and health. 

Natural Sugar

As the name suggests, these sugars occur naturally in plant or animal-supplied food. It is the healthiest form of sugar and is usually available as fructose and lactose in fruits and dairy items. Natural sugar is rich in nutrients, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and fibres. Its intake is both delectable and nutritional. Doctors usually recommend healthy sources of fructose such as apples, berries, oranges, and apricots to diabetic patients. 

Also know more about Natural Sweeteners 

Added Sugar

Added Sugar = Processed Food.  

If a product is labelled added sugar, it probably means that granulated sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and maple syrup were used in its processing. Added sugar is used in sweet food items such as soft drinks and baked products. Even seemingly nutrient-rich bread is laced with added sugars to augment the food flavour. Sometimes sugar is added to get the desired texture or help preserve the food, such as in jams and marmalades.

Artificial Sweeteners

It is common to include artificial sweeteners in a wide range of processed foods. Diet cola has it, and so do baked products classified as sugar-free! These foods, often advertised as sugar-free, actually contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar Alcohols are essentially hybrids of alcohol and sugar molecules. These are used in making ice creams and baking mixes to provide sweet flavour while minimising side effects. They are considered better alternatives to added sugar and are popularly called polyols. Artificial sweeteners can be used alongside added sugar and natural sugar extracts from beet sugar, date sugar, grape sugar, blackstrap molasses, buttered syrup, and castor sugar, among others.

1. Sugar-Free

First things first, sugar-free does not mean zero sugar. It implies the absolute minimum amount of sugar the food product can have. The guidelines of the FDA clearly state that for a food to be 'sugar-free', it has to have less than 0.5 grams of naturally occurring or added sugar per serving. Additives such as sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners are usually not added to sugar-free foods. 

Ice creams, bakery and confectionery items such as pancake syrups, and candies have sugar-free options for people who would not like to fill their sugar dose for a day in one go. Other terms like 'zero sugar', 'free of sugar' and 'no sugar' also stand up to the definition of ‘sugar-free’. 

But here is the catch. Because sugar-free is not devoid of sugar, consuming large quantities of that tub of sugar-free ice cream is only going to add more sugar and calories per serving to your body. 

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2. No Added Sugar

A food labelled as no added sugar means that no added sugar or any of its derivatives were manually added during its processing and packaging. 'No added sugar' is sometimes branded as 'no sugar added' or 'without added sugar'.

But it is not as good as it looks at face value. Do not confuse 'no added sugar' with ‘without sugar'. The food may still be loaded with naturally occurring sugars, artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols. High-fructose corn and malt syrup, honey, and other fructose-based foods also fall under the ‘no added sugar’ category. Your yummy peanut butter and packaged orange juice can be under the category of no added sugar, meaning there is sugar in it, just not manually added. 

3. Unsweetened

Unsweetened packaged food products are a relatively better option than the other two. This is because the food is certified to be devoid of any sugar alcohol or artificial sweeteners. You cannot use added sugar to unsweetened foods. 

Wondering if it is sugar-free? No, it still is not. Unsweetened packaged foods such as almond milk or ice tea can have naturally occurring sugar. 

Unsweetened foods are a safer option for fitness enthusiasts and people with diabetes who wish to eliminate the use of artificial sugars and added sugar from their diet. One of the best examples of naturally occurring sugar is Stevia extract from a plant by the same name. 

Bottomline

By itself, sugar consumption is neither problematic nor unhealthy. Its intake is worrying when consumed in excess. Most of the time, this overdose is because of a lack of knowledge of sugar portions defined by the different labels used by the manufacturers.  These categorisations are for manufacturers, and consumers should choose products based on what has gone into them rather than what the labels say.  Between ‘Sugar-Free’, ‘No Added Sugar’, and ‘Unsweetened’, the latter is the best option for those wanting to avoid processed sugar and artificial sweeteners. 

It is important to remember that none of these products is without sugar. Even unsweetened foods have natural sugar. So, why not go for the real thing instead? Book an appointment with us to effectively manage sugar in your diet.

FAQs

What happens if I stop eating sugar?

Eliminating sugar from your diet is not the right way to reduce risks but having a regulated amount of sugars and eliminating it slowly over time is the right way. If you stop consuming sugar there are some benefits that you will notice like glowing skin, reduced risk of diabetes-related disorders, good mental health, slow aging, quality sleep, weight loss, improved condition of liver and heart, good dental health, etc.  

Is honey better than sugar?

Honey is one of the best substitutes for sugar. Intake of sugar spikes up your blood sugar level instantaneously but switching to honey won’t have such consequences as honey has a comparatively lower glycemic index than sugar. However, it is important to have controlled quantities of honey as consuming too much of it thinking that it is a good sugar substitute can lead to increased blood levels. Therefore, having honey instead of sugar is preferable underlined that it's taken in the right quantities. 

Is coconut sugar better for you?

Though coconut sugar contains a few nutrients it is any time better than refined sugar but you cannot neglect the fact that coconut sugar is primarily a sweetener. Coconut sugar is a healthier option but eventually, it belongs to the category of sugar alternatives. The bottom line is that switching to coconut sugar is a better option than consuming sugar mainly due to its low glycemic levels.

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