What Are Added Sugars?
Brown sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrates are just a few of the ingredients categorized as added sugars in our foods. They certainly sweeten foods, but they also allow foods to stay on the supermarket shelf longer, provide bulk and volume to foods, and give some foods an appealing golden tone (referred to as caramelization).
You can spot the added sugars in a product on its ingredients list if you know their names. By law, ingredients must be listed in descending order of quantity by weight. On Nutrition Facts labels, "added sugars" are included as "sugars," which are found indented under the total carbohydrate amount. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines sugars to include all sugars that are naturally occurring in foods, such as those from fruit (sucrose) or milk (lactose), plus all added sugars.
With a revision of the Nutrition Facts label by the FDA in process, there’s discussion about whether added sugars should be broken out from naturally occurring sugars. Most experts believe it will take years before consumers will see such a revised Nutrition Facts label on packaging, and at this point the outcome is up in the air.
Are you curious about the names of the top 20 added sugars in our foods and drinks and why they're used? We thought so.
1. Agave Nectar/Agave Syrup
What it is: Agave is produced from the core of the agave plant, commonly grown in the southwestern United States and Mexico. The agave is extracted and processed into a syrup or nectar that has a delicate flavor. The syrup contains 50-90 percent fructose, with the remainder being glucose.
Why it's used: An agave sweetener is often used in products labeled as natural, such as energy drinks, teas, and nutrition bars. Although the sweetener seems to wear a halo of health, it is estimated to be 1-1/2 times sweeter than sugar because of its higher concentration. This allows manufacturers to use less. Agave has also been touted as a lower-glycemic-index sweetener.
2. Beet Sugar
What it is: Beet sugar is derived from the root vegetable and is nearly identical to cane sugar. Although beet sugar may sound more healthful than cane sugar thanks to its vegetable source, they're essentially the same product grown in different areas of the world. Beets require a temperate climate, making them easier to grow than cane sugar throughout the United States.
Why it's used: About half the sugar used in U.S. products, including table sugar, is beet sugar; the other half is cane sugar. On an ingredients list it is identified just as sugar. It is also used for browning and caramelization. (See Cane Sugar, No. 4 below.)
3. Brown Sugar
What it is: Brown sugar is a mixture of sugar crystals and molasses. There are two types of brown sugar: light and dark. These differ based on the amount of molasses added; dark brown sugar contains more molasses.
Why it's used: Brown sugar helps foods retain moisture and provides additional flavor.
4. Cane Sugar
What it is: Cane sugar is derived from a plant that is a member of the grass family. It's grown in tropical regions of the U.S. and around the world.
Why it's used: About half the sugar used in U.S. products, including table sugar, is cane sugar; the other half is beet sugar. On an ingredients list it is identified just as sugar. It is also used for browning and caramelization. (See Beet Sugar, No. 2 above.)
5. Corn Sweeteners
What it is: Corn sweeteners are refined from corn and include high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, and crystalline fructose.
Why it's used: Corn sweeteners provide product stability and crystallization for food manufacturers. These sweeteners blend well in products, offer a long shelf life, and are inexpensive, which is why they are so prevalent in our food supply. (See High-Fructose Corn Syrup, No. 14 on next page)