sugar shocks

Sugar Shocks: How to Find it in Your Food

June 17, 2024

Sugar Shocks: How many teaspoons of sugar do you think the average soda contains? Try 8-12 teaspoons per soda! Shocking isn’t it? Just for the heck of it, go get your sugar bowl or the container of sugar you use for cooking and a teaspoon. Measure out 8-12 teaspoons. Can you believe that one average soda has that pile of sugar in it?

Sugar Shocks: Empty Calories

Did you know that added sugars are basically empty calories? It means that the added sugar provides you with only calories but nothing, zero, when it comes to any nutrition benefits for the maintenance of your body. Typically, sugars are added as flavor enhancers and preservatives. And their carbohydrate-dense nature makes them a trigger for dumping syndrome after bariatric surgery. Natural sugars found in food, such as the fructose naturally found in fruit, are less likely to cause dumping syndrome. A good rule of thumb is to limit the total sugar content from both natural and added sugars to less than 20 grams per serving of a food.

In our Science 101 today, let’s review a few carbohydrate basics so that you know and understand more about the role of sugars in your body. Carbohydrates include the sugars, starches, and fibers naturally present in fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk products. Carbohydrates do differ in their chemical composition, how easily they are digested, and their speed of digestion and absorption. The word ‘sugars’ is typically used to describe monosaccharides, which have one sugar unit (such as glucose and fructose), as well as disaccharides, which have two sugar units (sucrose and lactose). You may have heard of lactose as it’s the main carbohydrate or natural sugar in milk.

Sugar Shocks: Added Sugars

What about added sugars? These are syrups and sugars added to food during the processing, preparation, or even at the table, such as when you add syrup to pancakes. Sugar often refers to table sugar or sucrose, which breaks down to the monosaccharides fructose and glucose. Like sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup is also a mixture of fructose and glucose.

Added sugars, as well as those sugars that occur naturally in food, are all carbohydrates that are metabolized or broken down into glucose. This glucose is the primary source of energy for your brain, and the glucose that is stored in your liver and muscles for energy. So while all sugars break down to glucose, whether naturally occurring or added, food and beverages do differ in their nutrition profile and role in your health. As mentioned earlier, added sugars provide your body with only calories and zero when it comes to nutrition.

Added Sugars In Your Food

Now that you have a better understanding of the science related to added sugars, how do you find these added sugars in your food? Go get a container of some food that you eat with added sugars. I want to look at the Nutrition Facts label together. Do you see Total Carbohydrate? Under Total Carbohydrate do you see Total Sugars? Total Sugars include both added sugar and any naturally occurring sugars already in the food. Remember, foods like fruit and milk contain natural sugars. Let’s say the label you are looking at includes total sugars of 12 grams per serving. Underneath total sugars are added sugars. The label says a serving includes 8 grams of added sugars. So 8 of the 12 grams of sugars were added during processing.

What does 8 grams of sugar look like? In the US, we don’t use grams as often as other countries. So let’s also view this amount in teaspoons. Four grams of sugar is about 1 teaspoon or 1 sugar cube. So 8 grams of sugar is equal to 2 teaspoons.

This may surprise you, but there are so many names for added sugars. Remember we said that both added sugars and those that occur naturally in food (all are sources of carbohydrate) are metabolized or broken down into glucose in the body, but the natural sugar comes in a package with nutritional benefits? This means that sugar by any other name is still sugar in the body, which breaks down to glucose. One added sugar is NOT healthier than another. What are other names for added sugars that you will see on labels?. Other names for sugar include brown sugar, honey, beet sugar, powdered sugar, molasses, raw sugar, coconut sugar, and maple syrup to name a few. These added sugars will be on the ingredient list that goes in descending order from most to least in terms of amounts.

Added sugars have many names, all synonymous with sugar:
Coconut sugar Powdered sugarCorn syrup
HoneyHigh fructose corn syrupBeet sugar
Brown sugarCane sugarCorn sweetener
Raw sugarMolassesInvert sugar
Maple sugarDextroseTurbinado sugar

It’s time to become a label sleuth. Use these guides to check out the Nutrition Facts label as well as the ingredient list. Check the ingredient label to see how many different added sugars are included in various food items. Then look at how much sugar is added in grams and convert this to teaspoons if needed. Knowing how to find all the added sugar in your food puts you in better control of your journey and the food you choose to eat.

Bariatric dietitian Dr. Susan Mitchell is host of the podcast Bariatric Surgery Success.

sugar shocks
Susan Mitchell


Bariatric dietitian Dr. Susan Mitchell is host of the podcast Bariatric Surgery Success. Selected as one of the Best 35 Dietitian Podcasts, Bariatric Surgery Success was chosen from thousands of podcasts on the web ranked by traffic, social media followers, domain authority & freshness. With a focus on nutrition before and after bariatric surgery, I help you eat for success while you conquer cravings, emotional eating and weight regain. Read more articles by Susan!