What is 'sugar'? 

'Sugar' refers to sucrose, a carbohydrate found naturally in most fruits and vegetables. Sucrose is the major product of photosynthesis, a natural process that allows plants to turn sunlight into energy. Sucrose is the most abundant sugar found in nature, and occurs in the greatest quantities in sugar cane and sugar beets, which are used to produce sugar for use at home and in food products. Whether produced from cane or beet, the result is the same, pure sugar.

Canada's Food and Drug Regulations require that "sugar" meets the standard of at least 99.8% pure sucrose. This is distinct from all other sugars and sweeteners including high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, and honey, as well as non-caloric sweeteners that are regulated as food additives. 

What are 'sugars'?

'Sugars' is the name for all types of sugars found in nature, including sugar (sucrose), glucose, and fructose found in plant products, as well as lactose found in milk. Sugars can also be manufactured from other foods such as corn starch (e.g. high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin) and concentrated fruit juice sweeteners. 

All 'sugars' are part of the carbohydrate family and provide 4 Calories of energy per gram. This translates to 16 Calories for 1 tsp (4 g) of sugar (sucrose). 

To learn more, please see our resource Clips on Sugars - Different Sugars for Different Tastes.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates include starches, sugars, and fibre, which are found mostly in the Grain Products, Milk and Alternatives, and Vegetables and Fruits food groups of Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide. Carbohydrates are also found in other foods such as jam, honey and soft drinks. The body breaks down starches and sugars into glucose, an important energy source that is needed by all the cells and organs of our bodies. Glucose acts like gas in a car – it provides the body with the energy it needs to 'run'. Most health authorities recommend that 45-65% of our total calories should come from carbohydrates from a variety of sources.

What's the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates?

The term 'complex carbohydrates' is commonly used to describe starches or fibre and 'simple carbohydrates' is often used to describe sugars. However, these terms are not useful for comparing the health effects of different carbohydrates. It was once thought that simple carbohydrates (sugars) raised blood sugar levels quickly and complex carbohydrates caused a more desirable slower rise. However, research on the glycemic index (GI) reveals that the opposite can be true. For example, table sugar (sucrose) raises blood sugar slower than some starchy foods like mashed potatoes, white bread or corn flakes. In fact, a report by the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations advises against using the term "complex carbohydrates". It's best to describe carbohydrates according to their common chemical name; e.g., starch, sucrose, glucose, etc.


To learn more, please see our resource Clips on Sugars - Understanding the Glycemic Index.

How many calories and what nutrients are in sugar?

Sugar is a source of carbohydrate and energy. It provides 4 calories per gram or 16 calories in a level teaspoon (4 g). This compares to 36 calories for the same amount (4 g) of fat or oil (e.g., butter, margarine, canola oil). On its own, sugar has no other nutrients. However, it occurs naturally in vitamin- and mineral- rich fruits, vegetables and other carbohydrate-containing foods. It is also added to many nutrient-rich foods to improve their flavour, texture and appeal.

Is brown sugar better for you than white?

Brown sugar is not more nutritious than white. In fact, there are no significant nutritional differences between these types of sugars. Brown sugar is composed of white sugar crystals that have been flavoured and coloured by small quantities of dark sugar syrups (molasses). Brown sugar is produced in two different ways – it is crystallized directly from the dark syrups obtained during the refining process; or dark sugar syrups are added to refined white sugar.

Is it better for you to eat honey instead of sugar?

Honey, brown sugar, white sugar and maple syrup all have similar nutritional values. All are composed of glucose, fructose, and/or sucrose in varying amounts, provide a similar amount of energy (approximately 4 Calories per gram), and contain insignificant amounts of vitamins and minerals. Sugar and other carbohydrate sweeteners play an important role in making other foods taste better, and, through their many uses in food preservation, cooking, baking, etc., increase the variety of foods available. All of these functions cannot simply be replaced by syrups. 

Is the sugar in fruit better for you than table sugar?

Sugar is a natural product. The sugar in your sugar bowl is the same substance (sucrose) found naturally in sugar cane, sugar beets, apples, oranges, carrots and other fruits and vegetables we eat. The body uses sugar from sugar cane and sugar beets in the same way as the sugars in fruit and vegetables. Sucrose and other types of sugars all become glucose, which is the body's preferred fuel.

How does refined sugar compare to the sugar in fruit?

From a nutritional point of view, it doesn't matter what foods provide the sugars in our diet. Once digested, all sugars are put to the same good uses. Almost all fruits and vegetables contain sugar (sucrose) along with other sugars, like fructose and glucose, in addition to fibre and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Regardless of its source, each gram of sugar supplies the body with the same amount of energy per gram (4 Calories per gram). Please see the table below for the sugars content of common fruits and vegetables.

Sugars Content of Fruits and Vegetables: 100 grams, edible portion
  glucose fructose sucrose
tomatoes 1.1 1.4 0
sweet peas 0 0 4.3
sweet corn 0.8 0.6 3.4
carrots 1 1 3.6
peaches 1.1 1.3 5.6
oranges 2.2 2.5 4.2
watermelon 1.6 3.3 3.6
pears 1.9 6.4 1.8
canned pears 4.8 5.1 1.1
apples 2.3 7.6 3.3
mangos 0.7 2.9 9.9
bananas 4.2 2.7 6.5

Does sugar contribute empty calories?

The view that sugar contributes nothing but empty calories fails to recognize the role of sugar in the context of the total diet. It is important to keep in mind that most sugar is consumed as part of the four food groups outlined in Canada's Food Guide. Sugar is seldom eaten as a pure substance but as an ingredient in what is often a food high in vitamins and minerals such as a bran muffin. In fact, a little bit of sugar can help make healthy foods taste better and improve their acceptance. Foods such as chocolate milk, flavoured yogurt, sweetened ready-to-eat and hot cereals, and grain products contain added sugars to improve taste and can help to deliver several essential nutrients (fibre, calcium, vitamin D, folate, etc) to our bodies. This in turn helps us reach our daily nutrient requirements. 

There is no evidence that sugar, at current levels of intake, displaces other nutrients in the diet. In fact, when sugars intakes are very low, nutrient inadequacies can occur. It is only at unusually high levels that sugars may have a negative impact on nutritional status. It is estimated that Canadians get about 11% of their daily energy intake from sugars added to foods. This is considered a moderate amount, and studies have shown that intakes at this level are consistent with healthy eating. Sugars in moderation can be a part of a healthy balanced diet.

Why are sugars added to foods? 

Sugar has many roles in foods. Some of these include: 

  • Sugar acts like a natural preservative for jams and jellies by absorbing extra moisture to prevent bacterial growth;
  • When exposed to heat, the browning reaction of sugar adds flavour and colour to bread crust and cookies;
  • Sugar is used to keep baked goods moist and can delay staleness;
  • Sugar feeds yeast in the fermentation that is part of bread-making; 
  • Sugar contributes to the light and fluffy texture of an angel food cake; and 
  • Sugar is responsible for the smoothness of frozen dairy products such as ice cream. 

When food is made without sugar, other ingredients are added to achieve similar functions of texture, flavour, or colour. Often, sugar is replaced with starches, artificial sweeteners, or food additives that either have the amount of Calories (e.g. starches) or require additional labelling on packages (e.g. food additives). 

Are foods labelled "reduced in sugar" or "no added sugar" better for me? 

Food products making the claim "Reduced in Sugar", "Lower in Sugar", or "No Added Sugar" are not necessarily lower in total carbohydrates or Calories. It is important to look at the Nutrition Facts table to compare products and to understand the total Calories a food provides. 

In the example below, the "No Sugar Added" ice cream has 60% less sugars and is slightly higher in fat and total Calories as compared to the reference ice cream. Based on its Nutrition Facts table, this "No Sugar Added" ice cream is sweetened with a sugar alcohol (maltitol, 8 grams per 1/2 cup of ice cream). 

Nutrition Facts table comparison between "No Sugar Added" ice cream and reference ice cream

To learn more, please see our resource <a data-cke-saved-href="/SUGAR/media/Sugar-Main/PDFs/ClipsonSUGAR2015_ENG-LR.pdf" href="/SUGAR/media/Sugar-Main/PDFs/ClipsonSUGAR2015_ENG-LR.pdf" onclick="_gaq.push (['_trackEvent', 'consumers', 'download', 'facts_on_sugars']); target=" blank"="">Clips on Sugars – Facts on Sugars.