sugar-free vs. no sugar added

Do you get confused between labels that say sugar-free vs. no sugar added? You are not alone! Food labels that claim no added sugar or sugar-free can confuse consumers. For shoppers that are conscious of sugar, it is downright stressful to distinguish one claim from another.

There are close regulations by the FDA, enabling food manufacturers to use statements about sugar on food labels, but most folks still end up scratching their heads.

Does sugar-free mean no sugar at all? Does No Sugar Added mean the product has zero sugar? Consumers the world over are confused between what they perceive the label to mean and what the label actually means. Read on to get the cobwebs cleared up.

First off, it is the way in which we consume sugar that is bad, and not sugar in itself. In fact, the level of sugar consumption going on today can be bad for your health.

While occurring naturally in vegetables and fruits, sugar is also added to processed food and soft drinks. Thus, you need to consume sugar in minimal amounts. In fact, a maximum of ten percent of your daily intake of calories can come from sugar, at most.

While sugar consumed in large amounts can increase cavity risks, eating too much sugar also increases risks for other health problems like diabetes type 2 and heart disease.

While the FDA approves using artificial sugar in food, there is an existing controversy over the perceived risks to health. It is important to realize that when it comes to sugar-free vs. no sugar added, there is a huge difference, and becoming an informed consumer means knowing exactly what the difference is.

Sugar-Free Vs. No Sugar Added: Who Wins?

Sugar-Free Vs. No Sugar Added: Who Wins?

Who wins the battle between sugar-free food and food with no added sugar? In reality, this question is akin to asking which is better, a tomato or a potato? There is no right or wrong answer.

You need to take careful consideration of your goals and implement the right choice into your own particular diet in order to meet those goals. Some folks are under doctors’ orders to skip the sugar altogether.

If this sounds like you, then you will have to go with Sugar-Free. You can only consume food groups that are sugar-free.

For the rest of the population that wants a healthy lifestyle but don’t need to skip the sugar altogether, finding products that say No Added Sugar will be better than products that don’t have these on the labels.

For example, when choosing granola, the label that says No Added Sugar is going to be healthier than the one that does not.

The quick answer is that there is indeed a difference between unsweetened, no added sugar, and sugar-free. Let us break down and decode what this really means so that you can understand those labels better. In the process, you and your family become more informed shoppers which will be to your advantage.

Unsweetened Foods

When you check a food label and see the word Unsweetened, it means the product has no artificial sweeteners, alcohol sugar, or added sugar.

This does not mean that the products have zero sugar. It may contain sugar that occurs naturally, such as apple sauce, coconut milk, and almond milk.

If your goal is to avoid every type of sugar or reduce the added sugar in your diet, a solid pick would be unsweetened food.

No Added Sugar

sugar-free vs. no sugar added:what's the difference?

Food labels that say no sugar added is permitted by the FDA if they don’t contain sugar anytime during the packing or processing of the food. This includes ingredients that contain sugars such as dried mangoes.

To put it another way, as long as there is no manually added sugar to the food, it is able to claim that there is no added sugar.

This is different from being sugar-free since sugar alcohol, artificial sugars, and natural sugar like lactose and fructose are included. You will see the No Added Sugar claim on food labels of fruit preserves, fruit juices, peanut butter, and granola.

Remember that labels on the food that says no added sugar can still be full of calories. Also, even with this on the label, the product can still contain excessive levels of sugar. Many labels that claim No Added Sugar can be so misleading.

There is a misalignment between the perception that consumers have with the label No Added Sugar and the actual definition of when a label says No Added Sugar.

Food naturally has free sugars which become concentrated when the food is refined. For example, there is no added sugar in fruit-based spread, fruit juices, and fruit preserves.

These products are naturally sweet because the fruits in them are already sweet. Do you see how this can be misleading to consumers? It is even more confusing when the sugar that already exists in the jam preserves doesn’t have to be classified as sweeteners.

Thus, packs of apple juice boxes can rightfully claim No Added Sugar but still have an excessive amount of sugar, naturally present from the apples that were made into juice.

For example, you go and buy a can of blueberry pie filling that says No Added Sugar. So you go home and open the can but find the blueberry pie filling to still be extremely sweet, even with the label that seems to say there is no sugar.

The blueberries already had sugar in them before they were processed into pie filling. That is why the pie filling is extremely sweet even with the label saying there is No Added Sugar.

Thus, No Added Sugar means that there has not been any sugar added to the product by the manufacturer. Check the nutrition label to find out how much un-added sugar is already in the product.

Sugar-free means that the product has no sugar whatsoever. Keep in mind that neither sugar-free nor No Sugar Added labels do not automatically mean a healthy type of food.



Food is considered free of sugar if it does not have more than half a gram of sugar for every serving. Remember to note the actual servings number in food because even with a claim of being sugar-free, there might still be small amounts of sugar.

Also, sugar-free includes added and naturally-occurring alcohol. However, it does not contain sugar alcohol or artificial sweeteners, both of which enhance flavors even with no sugar. Sugar-free food labels include candy, fruit preserves, pancake syrup, and chewing gum.

Not All Sugars In Food Labels Are Created Equal

Labels that say No Added Sugar, Unsweetened or Sugar-Free, may sound similar, but they are different. The label you choose should fit your dietary requirements.

Unsweetened food would be the best option. You can get your sweet-tooth fix from naturally sweet, nutrient-packed vegetables and food. Building an arsenal of recipes that contain low amounts of sugar, use mostly natural sugar and minimizes extra sugar ensures a diet full of sweet success.

Let’s look at the most common sugar types, from sugar replacements to sugar alternatives, that you will see on labels. Remember that sugars that occur naturally are the ones in fruits, and not on a food label in the grocery.

Sugar Alcohol

Also called polyols, sugar alcohol is used commonly to sweeten sugar-free foods. The reason is that they do not cause tooth decay. Hard candy and chewing gum are common sources of sugar alcohol.

On the list of ingredients, sugar alcohol lists as mannitol or sorbitol. Take note that these have laxative effects on certain individuals.

More examples of sugar alcohols include:

  • xylitol
  • sorbitol
  • mannitol
  • maltitol
  • lactitol
  • isomalt
  • erythritol

Artificial Sweeteners

sugar-free vs. no sugar added:Artificial Sweeteners

Common artificial sources include food marketed as having no sugar or sugar-free. These include tabletop sweeteners and diet soda. Usually, common sweeteners of this type include sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame on the list of ingredients.

There are five artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA. These are:

  • sucralose
  • neotame
  • aspartame
  • acesulfame
  • saccharin
  • stevia

One low-calorie natural sweetener called stevia is also approved. Explaining how the brain and body respond to artificial sweeteners is easier said than done.

It can be concerning when folks use artificial sweeteners to replace calories lost in other sources, which offsets health benefits and weight loss. For example, since you drank black coffee today, it’s okay to binge on a couple of slices of double chocolate cake. Do you see how this can be less than ideal for your health?

These products may change the way food tastes. Compared to high fructose corn syrup and table sugar, artificial sweeteners are much more potent. A tiny amount produces the same sweetness of sugar without the calories.

The hyper-intense sweetness can overstimulate your taste receptors. Thus, more sophisticated tastes might become compromised. This means that you won’t find vegetables and fruit sweet and delicious any longer and may lose complete interest in them altogether.

On a regular basis, taking artificial sweeteners might prevent you from relating calories to sweets. Thus, you might choose sweets over nutrition and become obese.

Using fake sweeteners can make you shun highly nutritious, filling food as you consume less nutrition from artificial food flavorings.

These are not carbohydrates and don’t raise your levels of sugar in the blood, unlike real sugar. Thus, if you have diabetes, you can enjoy sweet desserts made with artificial sweeteners even if you are not allowed to eat sugar. Consult with your health care practitioner and inform them of your plan to include artificial sweeteners in your diet.

Since there are almost no calories in artificial sweeteners, you can control your weight better. Soda has about ten teaspoons of sugar added and one hundred and sixty calories. In contrast, there are no calories in diet soda, and so this can be useful for long term weight loss.

Those that are doing a ketogenic or low carb diet can rest assured that artificial sweeteners have zero carbs and can curb their cravings for sweets.

Studies suggest, however, that this may not be quite so simple.The use of artificial sweeteners and frequent consumption of diet soda have been linked to an increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndromes.

Sugar Added

There has been recent scientific research on added sugars in foods, among them the World Health Organization’s recommendation on limiting their consumption on the basis of studies conducted on weight gain and the occurrence of Tooth Decay.

Elements of the association between overconsumption and other pathologies may be evident, but those associations remain to be further investigated by scientific studies.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, it is recommended that added sugars should not exceed 10 percent of your daily calorie intake.

Sodas, baked goods, and processed food contain extra sugar to achieve proper texture and to enhance their flavor. Sugar added includes staples for baking such as granulated sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, and brown sugar. Some examples of sugar added food are:

  • Brownies
  • Chocolate cake
  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Macarons
  • Muffins
  • Cheesecake
  • Ice cream
  • Donuts

Lactose and Fructose

Fructose is a monosaccharide that binds with the glucose in common sugar. It is found naturally in fruits, vegetables, cereals, sugar cane, honey, and in small amounts in some vegetables.

Fructose is currently used as an artificial sweetener and is present in many other food products and meds. It is not easy to overeat these sugars because they come combined with minerals, vitamins, protein, and fiber.

Lactose found in milk is a type of sugar, particularly one of the main disaccharides that catabolized into glucose and galactose by the enzyme lactase. It is commonly known as milk sugar, as it is widely present in dairy products and is an excellent source of energy.

Food packed in sweet flavoring like sweet potatoes, bananas and pineapples are rich in nutrients and are part of a healthful diet.

On the other hand, it is advisable to check the amount of sugar added to sweetened products such as yogurts. You can avoid added sugar by buying natural yogurt and including natural fruit

Food with fructose or lactose include:

  • ice cream
  • cheese
  • vodka
  • fruit juice
  • sherry
  • vermouth
  • liqueur
  • molasses
  • beer

The Verdict?

So what is the verdict between Sugar-Free vs.No Sugar Added? Sugar-free means that artificial sweeteners were used and there is no actual sugar in the product.

No Added Sugar means that no sugar was added in the manufacturing process of the product. More and more consumers have been misled into thinking that No Added Sugar means an extremely healthy product they can consume without having to worry about diabetes or raising their levels of blood sugar too much.

This cannot be further from the truth. No Sugar Added means that regardless of what the product is, the maker did not add any extra sugar. However, the product may already have been sweet in the first place, such as when you buy raisins.

There are no added sugars in raisins but eat a couple of handfuls, and you will feel your energy go sky high with all the natural sugars you just consumed.

Sugar-free is perfect for folks that are monitoring their sugar intake. No Added Sugar means that you won’t get any more sugar than what is already in the product. Depending on your lifestyle goals, you can decide whether Sugar-Free or No Added Sugar is the path you want to take to meet those dietary goals.

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