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What Sugar Labels Actually Mean
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Decoding Food Labels: Sugar Labeling and What It Means

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There are three primary sugar claims to look for on food labels: sugar-free, no sugar added, and unsweetened. It’s common to assume that they all indicate low sugar or an absence of sugar, but it’s more nuanced than that. They mean very different things in the eyes of regulatory agencies and consumers. 

Additionally, calling products “low in sugar” or “high in sugar” both have a specific meaning as well. 

This article will break down what each sugar claim means, so that you can make more informed purchasing decisions that fit with your lifestyle. 

Sugar-free

A sugar-free product contains less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving size. The term “sugar-free” is a regulated term, so if a product says “sugar free” on the label, you can be assured that that product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. 

The total must include any type of sugar that could be found in the product. Certainly, white sugar content counts toward sugar limits. Natural sugars like honey and fruit-derived sugars add into the total, too. Naturally occurring sugars, like the natural sugars in fruits or lactose in milk, build into the total sugar tally as well.

A sugar-free product may contain alternative sweeteners that do not contain sugar, such as xylitol, erythritol, or monk fruit sweetener. 

Keep in mind that the 0.5 g of sugar limit in sugar-free products applies to the serving size. It’s common for product labels to indicate a serving size that’s much smaller that people would typically eat in a sitting. Keep an eye on serving sizes if you’re watching and tracking your sugar. 

Lakanto® Blueberry Muffin Mix is Sugar-free!

If you have diabetes, checking “sugar-free” is a good first step, but it doesn’t give you the full picture of what the food will do to your blood sugar. You also need to check the carbohydrates. Certain starches will not count toward the sugar totals, but do pack in the carbs. 

No Sugar Added

A product label that says “no sugar added” means that no ingredients containing sugar were added during the manufacturing process. This includes sugars from concentrated fruit and vegetable juices, honey, and syrups. 

Even though no sugars were added, you cannot assume the final product contains no sugar at all. For example, a mango has no added sugar but contains 46 g of naturally-occurring sugar. 

You also cannot assume that choosing “no sugar added” labeling over the “sugar-free” labelling means the food is inherently high in sugar. 

Some examples of “no sugar added” Lakanto products are Toasted Keto Granola and Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups. In this case, both products are keto friendly, but that won’t be the case with every product in the grocery store. If you’re watching your carbohydrates, check carb counts before you buy.

Unsweetened

A food can be considered unsweetened if nothing was added to the product during processing to make it taste sweeter. It doesn’t matter whether the manufacturer uses sugar, natural sweetener, fruit juices, or artificial sweetener – if there is any ingredient added at all to enhance sweetness, it cannot be considered unsweetened. 

One example is applesauce. Apples are naturally sweet, depending on variety. When nothing sweet is added to the apples during or after the cooking process, applesauce can be considered unsweetened, and labeled accordingly. If anything at all was added to enhance sweetness, you won’t see an “unsweetened” label.

Low Sugar vs. High Sugar

The most up-to-date Nutrition Facts labeling guidelines include information on whether the sugar content of the food you are consuming or purchasing is low or high. 

  • Low sugar. 5% daily value (DV) or less is a considered a low source of added sugars
  • High sugar. 20% DV or more is a high source of added sugars

The daily value is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Although the daily value for added sugars is a maximum of 50 g per day, a lot of people choose to consume much less added sugar or none at all as a lifestyle choice. 

Interested in learning more about food labels? Check out our complete guide to reading and understanding nutrition and ingredient labels.