What Is the Difference Between Sugar & Carbs on Food Labels?

Sugar is one of the three compounds that contribute to a food's carbohydrate content.

Sugar is one of the three compounds that contribute to a food's carbohydrate content.

Fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods are some of the healthiest natural sources of carbohydrates. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that you increase your intake of all of these high-carbohydrate foods. The guidelines also suggest that you reduce your intake of sugary foods and drinks. As sugars are a type of carbohydrate, these recommendations may seem somewhat contradictory. However, as total carbohydrates also include starches and dietary fiber, avoiding sugary foods is not the same thing as avoiding high-carbohydrate foods.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are your body's preferred source of energy and should account for 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories. With 4 calories in 1 gram of carbohydrates, this amounts to 225 to 325 grams of total carbohydrates on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. The Code of Federal Regulations for food and drugs requires that food labels list carbohydrates, in grams, as "Total Carbohydrates" or "Total Carbs," typically appearing above "Protein" in a bold font. Food labels also list a percentage value in a separate column that approximates the extent to which the carbs in one serving contribute to the daily intake of someone following a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. Despite being listed as a distinct nutrient, "Total Carbs" on a food label refers to the sum of three groups of nutrients: sugars, starches and dietary fiber. As such, although all sugars are carbohydrates, not all carbohydrates are sugars.

Sugar

"Sugar" is one of two subheadings that the CFR requires beneath "Total Carbs" on a food label. A serving's total sugar content appears in grams but not as a percentage of your daily intake. Similar to the use of "carbohydrates" as an umbrella term for three groups of nutrients, "sugar" does not refer to a single compound. Instead, it includes a variety of simple sugars, which are compounds that your body can easily break down for immediate use. In contrast with the slowly metabolized, long-lasting starches, sugars can cause an immediate spike in blood sugar levels. These include the natural fruit sugar fructose, the milk sugar lactose and the sugar that your body produces when metabolizing starches, called glucose. On food labels, "sugar" also refers to sugar-based sweetening agents, such as high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose. These very sweet sugars are blends of fructose and glucose and do not naturally occur in foods and drinks.

Dietary Fiber

"Dietary Fiber" is the other sub-heading that the CFR requires beneath "Total Carbs," typically appearing between "Total Carbs" and "Sugar." Similar to the listing for a serving's total carbohydrate content, values appear for both weight in grams of dietary fiber and percentage of the daily intake of someone following a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. Dietary fiber helps to control blood sugar, lower cholesterol levels and maintain digestive and intestinal health. In addition, foods that are high in dietary fiber help you to feel full for longer periods of time, thus playing an important role in weight loss and maintenance. Because of these benefits, the American Diabetes Association suggests that you can use dietary fiber to reduce total carbohydrates when counting carbs. Specifically, the ADA suggests that subtracting half of the fiber from total carbohydrates provides a more accurate picture of the carbohydrate content of foods with 5 grams of fiber or more.

Reading the Label

MayoClinic.com suggests that you do not pay attention only to a food's sugar or carbohydrate content. Doing so may lead you to avoid healthy foods that are naturally high in sugar for low-sugar, low-fiber foods that contain large amounts of other carbohydrates. Instead, you should always pay attention to a food's fiber, sugar and total carbohydrate content. For foods with large amounts of sugar, it is also important that you read the ingredients list. As ingredients are listed by weight, doing so can help you to avoid foods that contain large amounts of added sweeteners, which can help to reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

 

About the Author

Matthew Lee has been writing professionally since 2007. Past and current research projects have explored the effect of a diagnosis of breast cancer on lifestyle and mental health and adherence to lifestyle-based (i.e. nutrition and exercise) and drug therapy treatment programs. He holds a Master of Arts in psychology from Carleton University and is working toward his doctorate in health psychology.

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