What is sugar? What is “real sugar”?

In the  21st century, sugar suddenly becomes such a complicated thing. Many people including scientists look at sugar with confusing feelings: love, hate and fear. There are over 100 million google hits about sugar  in Oct. 20171,  especially “sugar and cancer”, “sugar and obesity”, “sugar and toxic”, “sugar and diabetes”.  We are not only a nation raging war on terror, but also war on sugar!

There are Biochemistry 101 classes teaching basic nutritional functions of sugar; there are numerous publications with titles and conclusions of sugar’s harm on the human body and claims that humans do not need sugar; some scientists and people from the food industry denounce those publications for insufficient data and nonsense.  Why is sugar becoming such a scary topic? I will comment on a couple of things that I know in a series of articles.

So, what is sugar? It really depends on where you see the word “sugar”. If in recipes, it means the bag of sugar you buy from stores.  What is the sugar inside the bag? Well, you can find out some information on the food label.

Under the nutrition facts on the label, there are “Total Sugars” and “Includes  xx g Added Sugars”. Both “sugars” are based on the chemical structure in the final products, and not based on the source of sugars. In the “Ingredients” area, it lists the source of “sugars” most of the time.  For example, if cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup are added to a product, they are both listed under the “Total Sugars” and “Added Sugars”, there is no difference between them under  Nutrition Facts. But under the “Ingredients”, each of them is listed separately.

FDA-nutrition facts new and current.png
Original Nutrition Facts (left)  vs new label (right). FDA requires usage of new label by 2020.

Example of sugars listed under “Ingredients”:
Ingredients: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sucrose (sugar), cane sugar, trehalose, and turbinado sugar.

By the FDA definition (for Nutrition Facts), sugars are the smallest and simplest type of carbohydrates. They are easily digested and absorbed by the body. There are two types of sugars: monosaccharides include fructose, galactose and glucose; Disaccharides are sucrose, lactose, and maltose2. “Total Sugars” amount is tested by standard methods, while “Added Sugars” is provided by manufactures. Currently, there is no method to detect naturally occurring sugars from added sugars in the final products.

The “Added Sugars” mention is required to be put on food labels by FDA, and all food labels are supposed to have this category by 2020. Based on a 2017 survey3, 70% of people worldwide think that “no added sugar” products are more appealing and healthier. But is this true?  For example, juice A has about 42 g of total sugars , includes  40 g added sugars; juice B has 70 g of total sugars, and zero g added sugars. Is  juice B healthier than juice A since there are no added sugars?  It is not clear. Because when we consider which one is healthier , we should not only look at added sugar amount, we should look at total sugars, total calories, and other nutrients. Juice A could be freshly squeezed lemon juice with added honey (considered added sugars); while juice B could be a bottle of apple juice sweet enough without added sugars. Thus,  food industry considers that new food labels are misleading consumers.

On the market, there are soft drinks with a large sign: “Real Sugar”; there are other brand of soft drinks with “real cane sugar“ listed under  ingredients. Sometimes, I also see both “sugar” and “cane sugar” listed under ingredients. By FDA definition, cane sugar should be sugar, so,  what is going on?

There is no scientific definition of “real sugar”. This is just another nice marketing slogan to attract confused customers. Under current sugar war, “real sugar” likely means the source of sugar is not from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Real sugar can set other sugar sources (such as beet) apart from “bad” HFCS. But the cane sugar association wants to step up even higher from the rest of “real sugar” products (a long story). So if the source of sugar is from sugarcane, it is always clearly labeled with cane sugar, real cane sugar or pure cane sugar. Another secret, it is much easy to grow organic sugarcane than beets, so almost all organic food uses organic  cane sugar or organic honey.

I hope that I am not confusing people even more. In general, “sugars” listed under the Nutrition Facts are the type of carbohydrate providing calories. Under Ingredients, you can find out the source of the sugars, either from sugar, cane sugar, honey, maple syrup, HFCS… If you care how much sugars were added to the product, look for “ added sugars” under the Nutrition Facts. But make sure you understand that sometimes “added sugars” can be the same type of sugars naturally existed in the products, and don’t let “real” and “natural” fool you.


1. Julie Miller Jones, Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice? Is This Truth in Labeling? Globalfoodforums.com/2017-sweetener-systems/store

2. Fda.gov/nutritioneducation

3. Tom Vierhile, Sweeteners in the Cross Hairs: How do Consumers Really Feel about Sweeteners & Are These Feelings Changing?  Globalfoodforums.com/2017-sweetener-systems/store


The author of this article holds a Ph.D. in Food Science, and has a working experience of over 15 years in food and pharmaceutical industries.