Total Sugar vs Added Sugar: The Difference & Why It Matters

Total Sugar vs Added Sugar: The Difference & Why It Matters

If you’re one of those over achievers who checks the nutritional label before snacking, you may have noticed changes across grocery store shelves. One change in particular really stands out. 

Food manufacturers are now required by the FDA to list total sugars AND added sugars on their labels. This suggests a shift nutritional labels of the past failed to recognize; the difference between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar. 

The purpose of this change is to increase the transparency between manufacturer and consumer – after all, it’s easier to make informed purchasing decisions when you know exactly what’s in the package. But this leaves us wondering, between added and total sugar, what’s the difference?   

We sat down with leading food scientists tasked with creating these new nutritional labels to get the inside story on why this change matters for you. 

What’s the difference? 


“On a scientific level, the difference is determined through the product’s formula in the ingredient statement,” explained Microbac Laboratories Operations Manager Rachel Cogley. “Any sugar that exists in the product naturally, before production, contributes to the total sugar count on the label. Any sugar added to that product by the manufacturer contributes to the added content on the label.” 

To put it simply – if you pick an orange and squeeze it into a cup, the sugar in that cup is listed as total sugar. If you pick that same orange, squeeze it, then add a packet of sugar… the packet of sugar is listed as added sugar while the sugar from the squeezed juice remains listed as total sugar.  

“There are other nuances too,” explained Cogley. Barbecue sauce, for example, would now have two listed values for sugar content on the nutrition facts panel, total and added sugar. The total sugar includes the sugars coming from natural sources, like the tomato paste, and the added sugar (high fructose corn syrup). The added sugar content only lists the sugar content that was directly added to the formula …

Cogley continued, “this change was intended to help consumers see the clarification between the naturally occurring and added sugars in the products they purchase and consume. For the products that would not typically have added sugar, I would say juice and Greek yogurt would be the best examples. They both have total sugar from natural sources but they should contain no added sugar and many brands of these products make No Added Sugar claims.”

Transparency is Key 


In the past, the FDA didn’t require food producers to share this information with the public. In other words, it made it difficult to know if you’re buying 100% orange juice or an orange juice/ water/ high fructose corn syrup combination. With these new changes the distinction is clear. 

“The point of changing the label is to help consumers make more informed choices about their health,” explained Microbac Laboratories Food Testing Director Brad Nelson. “Juice is a great example – there are 100% juice products and then there are products called juice drink blends. Juice from a 100% natural source will claim zero added sugar, but it will still have plenty of sugar because it’s from a sugar source. Juice drink blends take pure juice, dilute it and add additional sugar such as high fructose corn syrup. This is a big difference.”

On a molecular level, there are two main types of sugars, Nelson explains, and most foods contain some of both. The first is monosaccharides (single sugar molecules) which include fructose, galactose and glucose. The second is disaccharides (two of these single sugar molecules linked together,) which include sucrose, lactose and maltose. For our purposes however, none of this matters because the body can’t tell the difference. It’s true. All sugars we consume are simply a combination of these various sugar molecules. 

Why it matters 


You’re probably asking yourself, “If our bodies can’t distinguish between the sugar in an orange and the sugar in a cookie, then why go through the pain of changing the labels?”

Good question.

This change isn’t about adjusting the type of sugar, it’s about adjusting the amount. Research shows consumers are more likely lean toward products without added sugar if given the choice.

In fact, A recent study found informing consumers of added sugars on the label could eliminate nearly one million cases of heart disease, stroke and type two diabetes combined over 20 years. And in products like juice (where you wouldn’t expect to find added sugar) the difference in sugar intake for an average buyer can be significant. 

But what if you’re not an average buyer? What if you’re the owner of a small juice company and you’re now required by the FDA to not only test all of your products for added sugar, but pay for new labels across your entire inventory? For a small to mid-sized company, this can be a daunting task. Fortunately, there’s still time (and you don’t have to do it alone.) 

Making the Shift


According to the FDA, food manufacturers making less than $10 million in annual food sales have until January of 2021 to make the required label changes. This means many of you have nearly a year to make the shift, and while we doubt this task will be the highlight of your year – it doesn’t have to be painful. Laboratories across the country like Microbac have years of experience in nutritional label regulation and can guide you and your team through the process. 

“We have specialists on our food testing team who have worked in the labeling industry and done compliance work on product labels for the FDA. Essentially, they’ve been on the other side of these regulations,” explained Nelson. “We have the 360 knowledge that allows us to guide people through the process seamlessly.” 

If you’re a decision maker looking for assistance with a new FDA nutritional label, connect with our food testing team here. To check out our food testing catalog, click here. For more information about the new FDA nutritional label requirements, click here.  

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