Understanding Sugar and Added Sugars

Child Nutrition Basics

Is the sugar in milk good for your kid?
Is the sugar in milk good for your kid?. Photo by Thomas Northcut / Getty Images

Most of us think of candy and junk food when we think of sugar.

It is important to remember that sugar is naturally present in milk, including breastmilk, fruits, and vegetables, etc.

Types of Sugar

Most of us have learned to limit or avoid certain types of sugar, like high fructose corn syrup, but you don't have to avoid all sugar. In fact, if you eat fruits and vegetables, it would be awfully hard to avoid sugar.

The most common types of sugars include:

  • glucose - found in many fruits and in corn syrup
  • fructose - fruit sugar
  • sucrose - sugar cane, sugar beets (a combination of glucose + fructose)
  • maltose - barley (a combination of two glucose molecules)
  • lactose - milk sugar (a combination of galactose + glucose)

Honey, a sweetener like sugar, is also made up of glucose and fructose, but they are not combined together. In general, honey contains much more fructose than glucose, which is why it is so sweet.

Table sugar is sucrose. Like other types of sugar, it is broken down by enzymes in our body to glucose.

While many people like to fight about how bad different types of sugar are for you, the basic difference you should think about is likely between naturally occurring sugar and added sugars. When you eat or drink something with naturally occurring sugar, even though you are getting some sugar, you are also getting many other vitamins and minerals in your diet.

When you drink milk or eat an orange, for example, you get other nutritional benefits, unlike drinking a soda or eating a piece of candy. You do get sugar from all of them, but that's all you get from the soda and candy.

Identifying Added Sugars

It is quite easy to figure out how much sugar is in the foods we eat.

Just check the Nutrition Fact label and look at the about on Sugars listed under Total Carbohydrates.

That can be misleading though, as it doesn't differentiate between natural sugars and added sugars. For that, we have had to check the ingredients list and look for clues that the food item contains added sugars, including that it contains things like:

  • agave nectar
  • anhydrous dextrose
  • beet sugar
  • brown sugar
  • confectioner's powdered sugar
  • corn syrup
  • corn syrup solids
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • fruit juice concentrate
  • high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • honey
  • invert sugar
  • lactose
  • malt syrup
  • maltose
  • maple syrup
  • molasses
  • nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)
  • pancake syrup
  • raw sugar
  • sucrose
  • sugar
  • white granulated sugar

New rules from the FDA will hopefully soon make it easier to recognize added sugars on food labels, as they add the amounts and percent daily of added sugars to foods.

Sugar Limits

Sugar itself doesn't cause diabetes or ADHD or any number of other things it gets blamed for.

Although some people are concerned that sugar is a poison, the most common reason to avoid added sugar is to simply avoid extra calories.

How much sugar is too much?

In general, you don't usually want to get more than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars. Unfortunately, most people get too many calories and too many calories from added sugars.

But remember, this is the sugar that you get from candy, cakes, fruit drinks, donuts, and soft drinks, etc.

In general, it is not the sugar that you get from fruits, orange juice, yogurt, or milk.

For example, don't be mislead by scary claims like yogurt might have more sugar than a Twinkie. The sugar in yogurt is mostly from naturally occurring milk sugar and sugar from added fruit, while a Twinkie is almost all added sugars.

Avoiding Added Sugars

To help your kids avoid added sugar, it can help to:

Most importantly, learn to read food labels to look for added sugar in the foods your kids eat.


CDC. Consumption of Added Sugar Among U.S. Children and Adolescents, 2005–2008. NCHS Data Brief. Number 87, February 2012

HHS. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

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