Ask Amelia Food Comparisons Nutrition

Sugar vs. Added Sugar: What’s the Difference?

natural sugar vs added sugar

When you want to cut down on sugar, it’s helpful to know what “sugar” really means. Here are some sugar questions, answered.

What’s the difference between sugar and added sugar?

The term “sugar” encompasses both added sugar (sweeteners added to foods to make them taste sweeter) and naturally-occurring sugar (like the fructose in fruit and lactose in milk).

What kind of sugar should you limit in your diet?

It’s the added sugar that you want to limit, since added sugar provides unnecessary calories and no helpful nutrients. Unless you’re a diabetic, you don’t need to pay much attention to the naturally occurring sugar in whole foods like fruit and plain yogurt. These naturally occurring sugars act differently in the body, and because they’re accompanied by protein or fiber and water they’re not likely to make you “crave” more sweets.

Nutrition experts recommend limiting added sugar to 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 tsp per day for men. More on these recs here.

Is the sugar in fruit and dairy bad for you?

No. The protein in dairy, and the fiber and water in fruit helps your body to absorb the naturally occurring sugar slowly and steadily. However,ย as with any food, you should still monitor portion sizes. 2-3 servings of fruit per day is good amount for most healthy adults. Most of the produce you eat should be vegetables.

For dairy, as long as you’re usually choosing plain, unsweetened dairy products like regular milk, plain yogurt, cottage cheese, etc. the naturally occurring sugar (lactose) is not a concern.

Note:ย 1 cup of skim milk has about 10 grams of naturally-occurring sugar, and 1 cup plain low-fat yogurt has about 12 grams. These amounts, along with any added sugar, will appear on the Nutrition Facts Label.

How do I know what’s added or not?

Read ingredients lists. If sugar, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, honey, or any of these code words for sugar appear in the ingredients list, you know there is added sugar present. Candy, packaged sweets and other sweet foods usually have more than one type of sweetener added, and sugar or one of its counterparts will likely be in the first few ingredients listed.

What are the best ways to limit added sugar?

Here areย 7 easy ways to cut down on sugar, even if you have a sweet tooth!

Example of natural sugar vs. added sugar:

This plain Greek yogurt is completely unsweetened, but still shows 4 grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts label because of it’s naturally occurring lactose:

greek yogurt greek yogurt

This pineapple flavored Greek yogurt shows 16 grams of sugar, a small amount from the naturally occurring lactose and the rest from added sugar and fruit:

greek yogurt

how much sugar should you eat

Buying plain yogurt and sweetening it yourself with just a little bit of fruit or sweetener – is one great way to reduce your intake of added sugars.

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  • grace brockway
    May 21, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you so much for this clarification, Amelia. It has really helped me understand which sugars to pay close attention to and which are beneficial and can be consumed cautiously.

  • Amelia
    May 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    My pleasure – I’m happy this helped to clear things up ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Lucy
    February 20, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Hi Amelia, although this article was helpful – i am still not 100% clear on how to tell whether you are consuming natural sugar or added sugar – for example – in a small 42.5 g packet of raisins – there is 7 cubes of sugar – however the packaging is not clear so how am i meant to know if this is added sugar or natural sugar? Also does this suggest that if raisins contain this much sugar, it doesn’t matter if we are feeding our children sweets or chocolate which contain the equivalent amount of sugar?
    Thank You
    (could you reply as soon as possible ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  • Amelia Winslow
    February 20, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Lucy,
    The best way to tell whether something has added sugar is to read the ingredients. In raisins, for example, you’ll only see “raisins” on the ingredients list – no sugar – so you can be sure any sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts label is naturally-occurring and not added. Sugar from fruit (and dried fruit like raisins) is not the same as added sugar and it absolutely matters which kind of sugar you are feeding your kids with regularity. I personally feel good about feeding my daughter (also Lucy!) fruit & dried fruit, but treats with added sugar are an occasional treat. Hope that helps!

  • Karla
    November 18, 2014 at 9:16 am

    I cannot tolerate sugar. I have to read labels carefully. I have found one flavored yogurt I can eat. It’s CARBmaster by Fred Meyer. For instance, blackberry flavor has 3 grams of sugar, natural occurring only. It’s sweetened with such aloes. I would love to know of other brands, especially a Greek yogurt that is flavored and this low in sugar. Any suggestions?

  • Amelia Winslow
    November 19, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Try Siggi’s yogurts, Karla. They come in delicious flavors but are very low sugar (8-10 grams, which is very low since naturally occurring lactose accounts for about 12 grams of sugar per cup in plain yogurt, and 6 grams per cup in Greek yogurt). Siggi’s is Icelandic yogurt and even thicker than Greek, so the taste is tart though flavorful. Keep in mind that something called “CarbMaster” probably has artificial or calorie-free sweeteners, which I do not recommend, health-wise.

  • Lynn
    October 16, 2016 at 10:26 am


    I respect what you do, but I know that what you were taught as a nutritionist is all you know, as well as whatever you have researched on your own. I am a Holistic Nutritionist, and can give you a little more in depth info than what you learned in school.

    Cow’s milk DOES have added sugar – 4 tablespoons per serving. Organic cows milk does not. Dairy is a mucus producing food, one of the top allergens, and the #1 trigger for migraines. Yogurt is SUCH a myth – it is basically sugar & fat. I really don’t like to comment on another professional’s page, because I know you help people lose weight, & get healthier, so I’m really, really sorry. But my hate for the dairy industry is so strong! They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on advertising – when there is SO much good they could do w/that $$, but they are greedy, lying scumbags that make people sick ๐Ÿ™ I have watched well over 150 documentaries on health, wellness, food, the planet, etc. in addition to my schooling, and I can tell you that if everyone quit consuming dairy, there would be a lot less obese people in the U.S., less allergies, less illness, less cancer. Sugar feeds cancer cells. The diets fed to cows make their milk & meat unhealthy. I hope you will watch these videos for more information, as I know that you want to help people ๐Ÿ™‚ 2 years ago, I didn’t have all of this information, but in my food documentary addiction (LOL!), I have learned SO much more than school taught me. Also, I highly recommend watching every video on Youtube by Markus Rothkranz. Thanks for choosing the healing field ๐Ÿ™‚ (Markus’s book – the downloadable version – “Heal yourself 101” is FREE right now!)

  • Amelia Winslow
    October 21, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    I agree with organic and conventional milk being different nutritionally, and that conventional cows’ diets aren’t healthy for them or for us as the consumers of the milk they produce, and that the dairy Checkoff program would be better off spending the millions they collect from struggling farmers to improve the welfare of those very farmers instead of using funds to market dairy products to consumers.

    However, a few of your “facts” are just plain false. For example, you say that cow’s milk “does have added sugar” and that it’s “4 Tablespoons of sugar.” Unless the milk is chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, etc and has sugar or another sweetener in the ingredients list, no it does not have added sugar. Added means added during processing. Furthermore, 4 Tablespoons = 12 teaspoons = 48 grams which would mean that every cup of milk had 48 grams of sugar, which is far from the truth. Even a glass of skim milk, which has the most naturally occurring lactose compared to higher fat milks, has 12 grams of sugar – and this is not added sugar but naturally-occurring milk sugar (lactose). So it’s hard for me to take the information you present seriously, when it’s intermingled with random claims that have no validity.

  • Mardy
    May 4, 2017 at 8:46 am

    Amelia, Thank you for correcting some of the misinformation Lynn professed. Where this anti dairy movement came from I don’t know, but it’s unfortunately become popular. We see these dietary fads swing through now & again & lots of people hop on board: gluten free diets & lactose free diets are two that are currently popular. Yes there are legitimate medical issues for a handful of people, but a medical doctor can make that determination. Don’t self diagnose.

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