Sugar and Sweeteners

Sugar: we love it. We put it in our coffee and on our cereal. We all know those sugar-loaded beverages that are high in added sugar, but what about the hidden sugar that is added to foods?


Granola bars, yogurt, muffins, and fruit drinks are just a few examples of products that often have added sugar. Here is a little help deciphering the truth amongst the myriad of opinions and information about sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Do We Need It?

Our body requires carbohydrates, which are broken down into glucose for our body to use as fuel. Our bodies can make fuel from fat and protein, but the most efficient source of glucose is carbohydrates. There are different types of carbohydrates, which have different effects on our bodies. Simple carbohydrates or sugars (like those found in candy) are very quickly absorbed by the body and give an immediate burst of energy, usually followed by fatigue when the energy source is depleted. Other than providing energy, sugar has no nutritional value. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates (found in whole grain cereals or breads) still contain the vitamins and minerals naturally found in the grain, are higher in fibre, and slowly digested.

There is too much sugar in the North American diet. It is estimated that Canadians consume more than 13 percent of total calorie intake from added sugars. However, the World Health Organization recommends that no more than about five percent of our total daily calories (six teaspoons of sugar) should come from added sugars, which do not naturally occur in food.

Where Is It All Coming From?

Sugar can be found naturally in some foods like milk and fruit. These foods should not be avoided because they also contain nutrients the body needs. However, many sources of sugar in our diet are added to food.

Did you know that sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., soft drinks) are the main culprit for excess sugar consumption? Aim to limit these foods that are high in added sugar and low in nutrients.

Where it gets really tricky is when sugar is added to foods that most people assume are healthy. Foods like fruit drinks, granola bars, yogurt, and cereal can be the biggest culprits behind hidden added sugar. To avoid eating added sugars, make sure to carefully read the nutrition facts label and ingredients list. Look for cereals with less than 12 grams of sugar in them and dairy products with less than 26 grams of sugar per serving. To avoid added sugar in fruit drinks, look for juice that does not list sugar as an ingredient.


Sugar and Its Aliases

Extra sugar may be added into your food, but can you tell where? A simple glance over the ingredients list may not reveal how much sugar has been added to food. These are just some of the names for sugar:

  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)* or glucose-fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Honey
  • Fructose, lactose, or maltose
  • Corn syrup
  • Organic raw sugar
  • Cane juice/sugar
  • Granulated white sugar
  • Molasses
  • Sucrose
  • Brown sugar

*You may have heard some of the controversy surrounding HFCS. HFCS is a liquid sweetener that is used as a cheaper alternative to sweetening with sucrose (AKA table sugar). It has been questioned whether HFCS is to blame for the increased obesity rates, but a definite answer cannot be provided with current information. High fructose corn syrup has almost the same fructose-glucose sugar composition as natural sweeteners such as honey, syrup, and table sugar. It is possible that the excess calories that come from added sugar are the problem, not the specific type of sugar being used. Other possible health outcomes (dyslipidemia, high blood pressure, chronic disease risk) in relation to consuming HFCS are also being looked at.

This or That? What Has More Added Sugar?

Fruit Juice or Fruit Drink?

Fruit drinks (AKA cocktails or punch) are generally made from water, flavouring, and added sugar, with no real fruit and therefore no nutrition. Fruit juice is made with the unsweetened juice from real fruit. Canada’s Food Guide says ½ cup of fruit juice contains 1 serving of vegetables and fruit.
Bottom line: choose vegetables and fruit more than juice and try to satisfy your thirst with water or milk.

“Double Double” Coffee or Chocolate Dip Donut?

A “double double” coffee from Tim Hortons has more added sugar than a chocolate dip donut. The donut has 10 g of sugar, while the cream and sugar in the coffee almost doubles it with 18 g of added sugar. This does not mean that donuts are any better for your health than coffee, but you may want to think twice about how you order your drive-thru coffee.
Bottom line: try drinking coffee black or with milk and sweetener instead of with sugar and cream.

Granola or Lucky Charms Cereal?

They are the same! Most brands of granola have about 10 g of added sugar per granola bar, which is equal to one serving (3/4 cup) of Lucky Charms cereal, which also has 10 g of added sugar. Granola may have more nutrition than Lucky Charms or other sugary cereals (for example, more fibre) but do not be fooled, they both are packed with sugar.
Bottom line: choose whole grain high fibre cereals for a nutritious breakfast and enjoy granola in small amounts.

Ketchup or Peanut Butter?

Peanut butter actually contains less sugar than ketchup! Ketchup lists liquid sugar as its third ingredient, while natural peanut butter contains no added sugar. However, some peanut butter is sweetened to provide a flavour (e.g., honey, chocolate, etc.) or replace fat that was removed in the “light” versions. When choosing peanut butters look for natural, unsweetened, and unsalted.
Bottom line: be mindful when using condiments because each tablespoon can add up quickly.

Tips for Evading Added Sugar


  • Foods which list sugar as its first, second, or third ingredient.
  • Candy, chocolate, and other sweets high in added sugar.
  • Coffee drinks with flavoured syrup and sweet toppings.
  • The amount of sugar you add to things you eat or drink like cereal, pancakes, coffee, and tea. Try cutting the usual amount of sugar by half and wean down from there.

Try These Options

  • Look for breakfast cereals that contains less than 12 grams of sugar and more than 4 grams of fibre per serving. Add fresh and dried fruit to cereal instead of sugar.
  • Drink more milk and water and less fruit beverages, pop, and alcohol.
  • Opt for reduced-sugar syrups, jams, and jellies, and use within reason.
  • Snack on vegetables, fruit, low-fat cheese, and whole-grain crackers more often than pastries and cookies.
  • Enhance foods with spices instead of sugar; try ginger, cinnamon, or nutmeg.

What about Artificial Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are an alternative to sweetening with sugar. Most are considered calorie-free because they are very sweet and only a little is needed. There are a number of different artificial sweeteners available. They are sold as table-top sweeteners, home baking ingredients, or in commercial products such as baked goods, soft drinks, and candy.

Artificial sweeteners can be used by dieters to replace sugar. Since artificial sweeteners generally contain fewer calories than sugar, they may help lower caloric intake, which may lead to weight loss. This might not be the case though as many artificial sweeteners are used in combination with other sweetened products, making it difficult to assess if artificial sweeteners contribute to weight loss. Artificial sweeteners can also be used by people with diabetes who need to watch their blood sugar.


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