Ask the Dietitian - What Exactly are Sugars?

Ask the Dietitian - What Exactly are Sugars?

Posted by Diane, MPH, RD, LD - Director of Nutrition Services on Sep 10th 2020

When you hear or read the word “sugars”, what comes to mind? Usually, “sugars” are thought to be sucrose which is table sugar. Not true! This article reviews some facts you need to know so that when you review a product label, you understand what “sugars” are and how this may affect decisions on what you buy especially for your little one.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has new regulations regarding the labeling of foods. These regulations continue to require a Nutrition Facts Panel on all food labels but with changes. For carbohydrates, the Nutrition Facts Panel must now state the following:

  • Total Carbohydrate
  • Total Sugars
  • And under Total Sugars, “Includes x grams added sugar”

Pretty confusing! So, let’s try to make sense of this confusion. Carbohydrates are classified as monosaccharide (one carbohydrate molecule), disaccharide (2 carbohydrate molecules), or polysaccharide (3 or more carbohydrate molecules).    

Here are examples of each:

  • Monosaccharide: glucose, fructose, galactose
  • Disaccharide: sucrose (one molecule of fructose attached to one molecule of glucose); lactose (one molecule of galactose attached to one molecule of glucose); maltose (one glucose molecule attached to another glucose molecule)
  • Polysaccharides: starch, glycogen – these are long chains of monosaccharides.

On the Nutrition Facts Panel, Total Carbohydrate includes the amount of naturally occurring carbohydrates found in a food or food ingredient plus the amount of carbohydrate added to the product.

Total sugars would be the amount of naturally occurring monosaccharides and disaccharides plus the amount of added monosaccharides and disaccharides.

The FDA defines “added sugars” as “sugars that are either added during the processing of foods or are packaged as such. (e.g., a bag of sugar). Added sugars include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.”1

If mother’s milk were to be labeled according to FDA regulations, the amount of lactose would have to be declared as “Total Sugars”. Glucose is vitally needed in intravenous (IV) solutions. Would an ill patient needing an IV glucose solution want to see “Total Sugars” on the label? Would a parent reading the label of a can of peaches packed in their own fructose containing juices think that the “Total Sugars” amount shown on the label mean sucrose (table sugar)?

In my opinion, the term “Total Sugars” is misleading and doesn’t really help consumers know what actually is in a product. “Added Sugars” is also a bit misleading as consumers interpret this term to also be only sucrose when other “sugars” like lactose or maltose are added to the product.

I do agree that the overall quality and quantity of carbohydrates in a child’s daily diet need to be considered. Too much juice or too much pasta and other high carbohydrate content foods should be limited each day to reasonable amount. The following link shows a great chart on what kinds and amounts of foods are appropriate for a toddler. It was prepared by a registered dietitian and can help limit excessive “sugars” in your toddler’s diet.

My next article will be about “sugars” in toddler formulas. Stay tuned!