Every so often someone asks me why I don’t include “sugars” in the nutrition analysis for my recipes. The reason is that the number of grams of sugar in a food really doesn’t tell you much about how healthy it is and it can even be pretty misleading. Many folks think if a food contains sugar it’s not a healthy choice. This isn’t necessarily true. You need to dig deeper and look at the entire picture, including naturally occurring and added sugar. Let me explain.

Simple Sugars: Natural vs. Added

Knowing where your sugar comes from is most important. Does the sugar come from a natural source or was it added into the food? Here’s the difference.

Natural Sugar

Sugar is naturally found in foods like fruit and dairy. Both are packed with vitamins, minerals, and other nutritious goodies your body needs. Check out the label of low fat, plain yogurt– you’ll find it contains about 14 grams of sugar per cup. Where does the sugar come from? It comes from milk, which contains a natural sugar called lactose. The nutrition label for an orange would read 12 grams of sugar, but that number doesn’t tell you the sugar is inherent in the food or help you judge how healthy it is.

Added Sugar

Added sugars are sugars put into food to make it sweet, like table sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and the like. They give us calories but not many nutrients our bodies need.  Added sugars are usually high in candy, soda, and baked goods like cookies and doughnuts, but seem to be added to most foods these days, from breads and cereals to applesauce and yogurt. When I create my recipes, I try to avoid adding sugar, but if necessary, I use it sparingly. I also use unrefined sugars like molasses, honey, and maple syrup wherever possible because they at least contain some antioxidants and minerals.

The problem is, the nutrition data does not distinguish between added and inherent sugars. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has been petitioning the government to bring food labels into the 21st century (the same labels have been used since 1990) and recognize that added sugars should be its own category, and I absolutely agree.

Total Carbohydrates

I provide the “Total Carbohydrates” on my recipes. This number adds all starches, natural, and added sugar found in the recipe (the same is true on a nutrition facts panel).

If you’re diabetic or otherwise concerned about blood sugar, then this number (not the grams of sugar alone) is most useful since any type of carb raises blood sugar. In fact, some starches spike blood sugar just as much as table sugar does. So look at total carbs and even more importantly, the quality of the food focusing on whole grains, dairy and whole fruits and vegetables.

My Take: Total sugar on the nutritional label doesn’t tell you much about the quality of the food and can even be misleading. Look for wholesome ingredients and if you’re concerned about blood sugar– total carbs is really what you need to watch.

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