The Truth Behind Sugar-Free, Unsweetened, and No Added Sugar

A nutritionist explains the difference between the labels sugar-free, unsweetened and no added sugar. And a fact-check about artificial sweeteners

man in grocery aisle, sugar-free products

Often a consumer will see the words ‘Sugar Free’ or ‘No Added Sugar’ on a food packet and blindly buy the product. But what you really need to do is read the food label—carefully and with a little more patience than you normally would. That’s because:

  1. Food labels are confusing and not easy to understand for a lay person
  2. The ambiguity is higher if you’re wanting to know how much sugar a product actually contains.

You may have commonly come across the labels ‘No added sugar’, ‘Unsweetened’ or ‘Sugar-free’ on various products. Let’s understand what these three terms actually mean.

Understanding the Difference Between Sugar-Free, Unsweetened and No Added Sugar

1. No added sugar

If no sugar or sugar-containing products are added during processing, then a product can be labelled as ‘No Added Sugar”. It can’t be presumed to be free of sugar though. It simply means that the manufacturer didn’t add any sugar during the process of manufacturing. A product with a ‘No Added Sugar’ label may still contain natural sugars, artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols. Foods commonly carrying this claim are granola bars, spreads, fruit juices and preserves.

2. Unsweetened

If you see this term on a food label, it means the product contains no added sugars, no artificial sweeteners, and no sugar alcohols whatsoever. So does that mean you have found your safe zone? Well, at least there are no artificial sweetening additives in your product. However, it doesn’t mean the food contains no sugar at all, as it may have naturally occurring sugars. For instance, even single-ingredient products like juices will have fructose or fruit sugar. Yet it will be labelled as ‘No Added Sugar’ or ‘Unsweetened’ on the food pack wherein the natural sugar fructose present in the fruit may contribute as much as 20g of sugar in a 200ml glass of juice.

3. Sugar-free

This tag is most popular with diabetics, for obvious reasons. For a product to be labelled sugar-free, it should contain no more than 0.5g of naturally occurring or added sugars in a single serving. The catch here is that artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols may not be included in this 0.5g.

Be careful while buying products with a sugar-free label on the packaging. Scan the ingredients to check if other sources of sugar are on the list. If there are other ingredients like artificial sweeteners or fructose, know that they will contribute to your total calorie intake from that product. Common foods that carry this claim are chewing gums, syrups, candies and juices.

How a ‘Sugar-Free’ Product is Made Sweet

In order to meet the regulations laid down by authorities like FDA in the US and FSSAI in India, food manufacturers add sweetening agents like sugar alcohols [also called polyols] to the product. Sugar alcohols have a chemical structure that partially resembles both sugar and alcohol, hence the name. However, they do not contain any alcohol. By adding these substances, they can make the product sweet and at the same time reap the benefits of adding labels like ‘no added sugar’ or ‘sugar-free’ on the product.

These substances are either natural or artificial, have the same or higher sweetness quotient and are lower in calories. These products are as palatable as any regular sugary processed food. They also work as a bulking agent in the product, but provide you with almost no nutrition.

How to Know if Your Food Contains Sugar Alcohols

Look for these names on the food label:

  • Erythritol
  • Isomalt
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

These are the most commonly used sugar alcohol additives.

Is It Safe to Consume Products With Sugar Alcohols?

Occasional consumption of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols is fine, however prolonged or excess consumption of such products should be avoided. While these products are definitely low on calories and could help one’s transition from a regular sugary diet to one with reduced sugar, but they do have a flip side to them.

    1. If you are a diabetic or you are on a keto diet, you need to watch out for polyols, as these substances are essentially carbohydrates and will set your sugars off. You may consume these under the impression that they are helping to keep your sugars in control or supporting your keto diet. But, sugar alcohols like isomalt, maltitol, mannitol etc can contribute to anywhere between 1.5kcal to 3 kcal/gm.
    2. Over consumption of products with sugar alcohol could have a laxative like effect and you may experience gas, bloating and diarrhea.
    3. Most of these sweeteners are way higher on the sweetness index as compared to natural sugar. Overconsumption of these can impair the sweet receptors in the body due to over-stimulation. Consequently, you will not find sweet foods sweet enough and will have to add extra sugar. It will also hamper your tastes for naturally sweet foods like fruits and certain vegetables.
    4. There’s also a psychological angle to this. If you think you have controlled your calorie intake through the day because you had more of “Sugar-free” foods, you may be tempted to reward yourself by having extra servings of other sweet foods. This could be especially detrimental to diabetics. Teens tend to binge on colas because they believe that choosing the diet version makes it less harmful, and they end up consuming much more than they usually would.

Be Mindful of Your Choices

As a health conscious consumer, be mindful of the choices you make.

  1. Always read the nutritional label and particularly the serving size
  2. Read the ingredients well and be aware of these hidden additives that could hinder your journey towards a healthier you
  3. Use natural ingredients as sweet enhancers, like dates, raisins, figs.

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