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Everything You Need to Know About a No Added Sugar Diet


Ready to break up with sugar? You’re not alone. With over 70% of the adult population considered overweight, sugar is often enemy number one in the fight against obesity.1


Not only that, but excessive sugar intake is also linked to an increase in other health problems including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and many other serious conditions.2


The no-added-sugar diet is all about eliminating added sugar. Here’s everything you need to know and how you can get started.


What is Added Sugar?


First, let’s talk about what we mean when we say “added sugar.” Added sugars are all sugars that — as the name suggests — are added to your food and therefore, do not occur naturally in these foods. Manufacturers often add sugar to increase the shelf life or improve the flavor of your favorite foods.3


There is no difference between refined or unrefined sugar when it comes to added sugars. If the sugar isn’t in the food to begin with, it’s considered to be added. This means that added sugars can be natural sugars such as honey or date syrup added during preparation or processing as well as refined sugars like cane sugar, invert syrup, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and more.


Common culprits of foods with added sugar are things like ice cream, ketchup, soda, and baked goods, but added sugars aren’t just used in typically “unhealthy” foods. Technically, the sugar you pour into your morning coffee or the maple syrup you use to sweeten your oatmeal are also classified as “added.”


Added Sugar vs Naturally Occurring Sugar


Some foods might not have added sugar, but have naturally occurring sugar. For example, there is fructose in your apple and lactose in your milk.4 This sugar is not added, rather it occurs naturally.


Technically, there is no chemical difference between added sugar and natural sugar. Your body will process fructose that is used as an ingredient in a protein bar the same way it processes fructose from fruit.


However, the distinction between the two lies in the nutrients that accompany the sugar. Certain nutrients, like fiber, can slow your body’s digestion of sugar, helping to tamper the potentially negative effects of consuming too much sugar. For example, although an apple naturally contains fructose or fruit sugar, that apple also has water, fiber, and other nutrients that slow down the digestion process and offer more health benefits. This means your body absorbs the sugar into the bloodstream at a much slower rate.5


In comparison, the added sugar in soda isn’t accompanied with any fiber. This means all that sugar arrives at once in your body.5 This may result in a spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid crash, the result of which includes feeling energetic then sluggish.


Where Do You Find Added Sugar?


One of the reasons why a no-added-sugar diet might be difficult at first is that you might not even realize how much sugar you are consuming. It’s easy to spot the obvious offenders — we’re looking at you, soda and baked goods! However, the real challenge of a no-added-sugar diet is eliminating all the other types of added sugar you might currently be consuming without knowing it.


There are a lot of other added sugar culprits to watch out for that you might not expect! Even the foods you consider good for you such as your salad dressing, bread, ketchup, yogurt, or oatmeal could also use a no-added-sugar update.


Here are the major sources of added sugar in today’s average diet and what percent of sugar they typically contribute:6

Chart detailing %'s of sugar in beverages

Added Sugars On Ingredient Lists


So how do you know what foods have added sugar? The answer is simple: look at the nutrition label on the back. The nutrition and ingredients label legally can’t lie and tell the truth about added sugar, whereas the front label can be purposefully misleading.


How To Spot Added Sugars On The Nutrition and Ingredients Label


When looking at the back label, here are a few things to keep in mind to spot added sugars: Check for the “total sugars” and “added sugars” labels under Nutrition Facts*. The “Total Sugars” indicates how many natural and added sugars there are in the product as total grams. The “Added Sugars” are not naturally occurring sugars, but sugar added during the processing or manufacturing of the product.7


Nutrition Label
Image source: U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2020

Check out the ingredients list and look out for the “ose”. Sugar goes by a lot of names including fructose, dextrose, glucose, lactose, sucrose, or maltose. Other names include corn syrup, corn sweetener, molasses, cane sugar, brown sugar, nectars, raw sugar, syrup, honey, or fruit juice concentrates.4


Be aware of the top ingredients. The higher up the ingredient is on the list, the more concentrated it is in the product. So watch out for added sugar in those top ingredients!


Look out for serving size to get a better sense of exactly how much sugar you are consuming. While the label might read 5 grams of sugar per serving, always look at the serving size to get the full picture. If you are having three or four servings, you might actually be consuming 15-20 grams of sugar. Tricky or unrealistic serving sizes often make a product sound better than it is.


*In 2016 the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) revised the Nutrition Facts label to include “Added Sugars”. Before this, you could only see “total sugars” and you had no idea how much was added versus natural. Although most labels by 2021 should have “added sugar” listed, some food-makers have until mid-2021 to make the switch. This means you might still come across a nutrition label that does not have the added sugars listed. Make sure to do some investigating on the ingredients list if that is the case.8


Watch Out For The Front Label


Now, what about the front label? Your food label might have any number of claims about sugar. Here’s a breakdown of what some of them mean according to the American Heart Association:7


  • Sugar-Free: One serving contains less than 0.5 grams of sugars, both natural and added. (Other names include: Free of sugar, sugarless, no sugar, zero sugar)
  • Reduced sugar: Has at least 25% fewer sugars than the regular version of the product. Be wary of this label! Many companies will use this term to try and trick you into thinking that this is a healthier alternative, but it could still have a lot of sugar in it. (Other names include: less sugar, low in sugar, lower sugar)
  • No Added Sugar: This product might have naturally occurring sugar in it, but it shouldn’t have any added sugars. (Other names include: without added sugar or no sugar added)
  • Lightly sweetened: This is an unregulated and meaningless term. There are no standards needed to have this label on the front.

If a product indicates that it is "sugar-free" or has "no added sugar" then it should work with your no-added-sugar diet. However, always check the back label first to confirm.


Sugar Substitutes


Some products that claim zero sugar still taste like they have sugar in them. What’s up with that? This is most likely because these products are using some kind of sugar substitute or sweetener.7


Some examples of sugar substitutes include:9


  • Aspartame (Equal and NutraSweet)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Saccharin (Sweet 'N Low, Sweet Twin, NectaSweet)
  • Stevia (Truvia, Pure Via, Sun Crystals)
  • Acesulfame K (Sunett and Sweet One)
  • Neotame (Newtame)
  • Monk Fruit (Luo Han Guo)
  • Advantame

Because non-nutritive sugar substitutes contain effectively zero calories and generally don’t spike your blood sugar like added sugars do, they can be beneficial for those looking to cut out added sugar while providing the sweetness you crave.


Added Sugar Stats


So how much sugar should you be having? According to The United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans,6 a healthy diet has less than 10% of calories from sugar per day. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that means your sugar intake should be less than 200 calories, which is the equivalent of 50 grams of sugar per day.


The American Heart Association pushes that number even lower. They recommend that women should limit their sugar intake to only 100 calories per day, or about 25 grams of sugar or 6 teaspoons.4 For men, the recommendation is 150 calories per day or about 38 grams of sugar or 9 teaspoons of sugar.


This is not a lot of sugar. The average American currently consumes over 13% of total calories per day from added sugars or around 17 teaspoons of sugar every day. This means that if you’re following the expert guidelines, you’ll be cutting back pretty significantly in your added sugar intake. And, of course, even more if you’re following a no-added-sugar diet.


How is it that the average American consumes this much sugar? It’s because added sugar is used in so many foods, and it can add up pretty quickly. Let’s say you:


  • Start your morning with a bowl of cereal
  • Then eat a strawberry yogurt for your snack
  • During your mid-day workout, you enjoy a sports drink
  • Then you have a burger with ketchup for dinner along with a can of soda
  • And you top it all off with a piece of chocolate cake for dessert

Let’s count up those sugar calories:10

Graphic about added sugars in popular foods
Image source: U.S. Food & Drug Administration, 2016

In total, that’s 576 calories from added sugar. Now multiply that number across every day of your life and you can see how all that added sugar adds up to poor health.


Why Does Added Sugar Matter?


Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, the average American adult consumed about 15 grams of sugar.11 Today, the average American adult consumes about 77 grams of sugar per day.5 That’s over five times the amount of sugar!


The problem today is that manufacturers are adding more sugar to processed foods, and we’re also eating more processed foods than we ever have before. In fact, one study found that 80% of Americans' total calorie consumption comes from store-bought foods and beverages.12


This matters because the more sugar you consume, the higher your risk becomes of developing fatty liver, dyslipidemia, insulin resistance, hyperuricemia, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.13 One study found an association between 15% of daily calories from sugar and an 18% increase in risk for cardiovascular disease mortality.


Ways to Cut Back on Added Sugar


Here are some strategies for cutting back on added sugar as you start your no-added-sugar diet:


Keep track of your added sugar: It’s hard to cut out added sugar when you don’t know where your added sugar is coming from. Keep track of how much added sugar you consume in an average week by reading the nutrition labels of your favorite foods. Use this to build out a solid plan for what exactly you need to cut out and what you will replace it with.


Start introducing better-for-you options: Swap out your pastries, baked goods, or dessert items for alternatives that are lower or have no added sugar, like fruit. Some food swaps will be obvious, while others will need a bit more digging.


Take it at your own pace: Changing everything at once could be difficult and lead to frustration or giving up. Instead, start with swapping out a few items and see how you feel. With every week, commit to more changes until you’ve removed all or most added sugar from your diet.


Cut portions in half: Start by cutting your portion size of that sugary drink or food item in half. Instead of two spoonfuls of sugar in your coffee, try putting in one.


Swap out your soda or sugar-sweetened beverage: Soda and sugary sweetened beverages make up 24% of all added sugar. Eliminate that added sugar source by replacing your soda with OLIPOP. Other sodas have 39g of sugar and zero nutritional value. OLIPOP has 2-5g of sugar and a combination of plant fiber, prebiotics, and botanicals for both a sweet and healthy taste.


Always check the ingredients: Added sugar can be sneaky. Even if it’s a food item you don’t expect to have added sugar, check the label just in case. It might surprise you where added sugar ends up!


Are Some Added Sugars Better Than Others?


While some sugar has received extra attention, like high fructose corn syrup, the American Heart Association does not single out any particular type of sugar as being more dangerous than others. And although some types of added sugar, like honey and 100% maple syrup, contain some nutrients, the amount is quite negligible when looking at the big picture.


The real danger is a high added sugar diet of any kind of sugar. Whether it’s coming from honey or high fructose corn syrup, once it’s in your body it’s all the same.


Takeaway


Following a no-added-sugar diet is one way to support your health by limiting an ingredient that is linked to a countless negative outcomes when consumed in excess. This is why many people are moving towards a no-added-sugar diet to hone in on their sugar consumption.


But cutting out sugar is not always going to be easy. Your brain loves eating sugar, which makes it addictive and hard to stop. Yet, the longer you go without sugar the less your body will crave it. And remember, you don’t need to go cold turkey to have a healthier lifestyle.


Leaning on options like drinks sweetened with stevia, like OLIPOP, can help you satisfy your sweet tooth without loading your body up with added sugars. With the help of stevia, some OLIPOP flavors contain 95% less added sugar than conventional soda brands.


The key is to consume sugar in moderation and not as a regular part of every meal. Your body does not need that added sugar, it just wants it. So be patient with yourself as you begin and remember that this will get easier as you go!


Sources

  1. Fryar, M.S.P.H., C. D., Carroll, M.S.P.H., M. D., & Afful, M.S., J. (2020). Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Severe Obesity Among Adults Aged 20 and Over: United States, 1960–1962 Through 2017–2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity-adult-17-18/overweight-obesity-adults-H.pdf
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, February 10). Rethink Your Drink.
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/drinks.html
  4. Harvard Health. (2019, November 14). The Sweet Danger of Sugar. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar
  5. American Heart Association. (2018, April 17). Added Sugars. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars
  6. 10 American Heart Association. (n.d.). How Much Sugar Is Too Much? https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-much-sugar-is-too-much
  7. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, December). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025 (9th Edition). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf
  8. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2020, March 11). Added Sugars on the New Nutrition Facts Label. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/added-sugars-new-nutrition-facts-label
  9. American Heart Association. (2020, February 3). What’s the Difference Between Sugar Free and No Added Sugar? https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/difference-between-sugar-free-and-no-added-sugar
  10. Wax, RD, CDN, E., Zieve, MD, MHA, D., & Conaway, B. (2019, July 3). Sweeteners - Sugar Substitutes. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007492.htm
  11. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016, March). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015–2020 (8th Edition). https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/DGA_Cut-Down-On-Added-Sugars.pdf
  12. Baldridge, A. S., Huffman, M. D., Taylor, F., Xavier, D., Bright, B., Horn, L. V. V., Neal, B., & Dunford, E. (2019). The healthfulness of the US packaged food and beverage supply: A cross-sectional study. Nutrients, 11(8). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081704
  13. Baldridge, A. S., Huffman, M. D., Taylor, F., Xavier, D., Bright, B., Horn, L. V. V., Neal, B., & Dunford, E. (2019). The healthfulness of the US packaged food and beverage supply: A cross-sectional study. Nutrients, 11(8). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081704
  14. Stanhope, K. L. (2015). Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy. Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences, 53(1), 52–67. https://doi.org/10.3109/10408363.2015.1084990
Cheat Sheet
  • A no-added-sugar diet is a diet that aims to help you reduce your intake of added sugar and replace those items with better-for-you options.
  • Added sugars are all sugars that are added to your food and therefore, do not occur naturally like sugar found in fruit. These types of sugars are those that are most closely linked to negative health outcomes.
  • Reading the nutrition panel can help you become more aware of the amount of added sugar you are consuming.

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