What is an added sugar?
You can probably guess what an added sugar is: it’s any sugar that’s added during the preparation of a food. Ketchup sweetened with corn syrup has added sugar, but a fresh strawberry has none—all its sugars occur naturally. There are a few oddities in the technical definition, which we’ll get to in a moment, but generally speaking, if you had to add any kind of sugar—natural or otherwise—to a food product, that’s an added sugar. Starting in July 2018, the Food & Drug Administration is requiring manufacturers to list added sugars separately from the total sugars in a product, so it’s easier for consumers to spot super-sweet foods.
But having to write down a specific definition makes for some strange cases.
Maple syrup technically has no added sugar—its sweetness comes from the sugars in maple sap—but if you added maple syrup to a muffin mix, all the calories in the syrup would, confusingly, count as added sugars. The same goes for honey and orange juice. Oranges have plenty of sugar, and since orange juice is simply squeezed oranges, as long as you don’t add more sugar the natural sugars now in the juice don’t count as added.
The FDA does it this way in part because, well, maple syrup producers complained. How could Aunt Jemima— a maple-flavored corn syrup product—and an all natural one tapped by hand in Vermont both be listed as having added sugar? The actual maple syrup hasn’t added any sugar. It’s a fair point, but that doesn’t make the sugars in natural maple syrup any healthier.
Similarly, it seems unfair to make orange juice manufacturers say they added sugar when they didn’t. There’s still plenty of sugar in orange juice, though, and none of the fiber that helps make a whole orange good for you.
Is added sugar really always worse?
Sugar is sugar. This sounds obvious, but it can be a slippery slope to consider certain kinds of sugar to be fundamentally different from others. The only real difference in how we metabolize sugar comes from how the sugar is packaged.