Added sugar in yogurt can be hard to identify

chow_022616-78617919A friend recently read a book on healthful eating and is now telling me I should stop eating yogurt because it contains so much sugar. I normally have a 6-ounce container after dinner, and I admit I was surprised at the sugar content when I looked at the label. Should I cut back?  

First, take a second look at the label that surprised you so much. Currently, the Nutrition Facts label simply lists the amount of sugar in a product as a subset of its carbohydrates. This sugar can be naturally occurring, such as the sugars from the milk or fruit in the yogurt, or it can be sugars added during processing, such as sucrose, honey or high-fructose corn syrup. You can’t tell which is which from the Nutrition Facts label.

Nutrition professionals have long differentiated between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Added sugars are often called “empty calories” because they aren’t accompanied by vitamins, minerals or other beneficial nutrients. For example, when you consume sugar from milk or yogurt (lactose), you get calcium, too. When you consume sugar from an orange (fructose, glucose and sucrose), you also get vitamin C plus a whole host of other nutrients. But added sugar doesn’t provide much more than added calories.

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake. If you normally eat 2,000 calories a day, that’s 200 calories from added sugars, or 50 grams of added sugars a day. If you normally eat 1,600 calories a day, that’s means 40 grams of added sugars.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently proposing changes to the Nutrition Facts label so it would be easy for consumers to see how much of the sugar in a product is naturally occurring and how much is added. But in the meantime, figuring it out can take some detective work.

For yogurt, first look at the ingredients list for sugars. If they are listed in the first few ingredients, then the product could be high in added sugars. To get a ballpark estimate of how much of the sugar is “added sugar,” compare the Nutrition Facts label of a similar yogurt that is sugar-free. If your yogurt has 25 grams of sugar, and the plain or artificially sweetened comparable yogurt has 12 grams, you can assume there are about 13 grams of added sugar in your yogurt.

Is that too much? It’s hard to say. Those 13 grams could be perfectly reasonable depending on what else you eat over the course of a day. But if it’s just one of many foods with added sugars you commonly eat, it could put you over the top.

If it’s something you’re concerned about, you could try yogurt made with zero-calorie artificial sweeteners. Or if that doesn’t appeal to you, what about plain yogurt topped with fresh berries or other fruit? Or, just trim back added sugars from other foods and keep enjoying your nightly treat.

It’s good be more aware of added sugars that you may not have known about, but it’s also important to look at the whole diet. You have options.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Irene Hatsu, food security specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.


New dietary guidelines target added sugars

hand holding soda can pouring in metaphor of sugar content

When the new Dietary Guidelines were announced a few weeks ago, I heard a lot about the recommendation to limit added sugars. But I’m sure that they’ve said that for years. Is there something new?  

In previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — which are revised and re-issued every five years — the recommendation was simply to limit added sugars. There were no specific targets. In the new guidelines, the experts went a step further and gave an actual limit, recommending that we consume no more than 10 percent of our daily calorie intake in added sugars.

That means if you’re consuming 1,800 calories a day — the estimated level needed for a moderately active woman over 50, for example, or a sedentary woman under 50 — you should consume no more than 180 calories, or 45 grams, a day in added sugars. A typical 12-ounce can of soda has about 40 grams of added sugar. Three tablespoons of maple syrup have 36 grams. A slice of store-bought pecan pie has about 33 grams.

The reason behind the new recommendation is this: If you’re eating enough food from all the food groups — vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein — to meet your nutrient needs, you just won’t have many more extra calories to play with and still maintain a healthy weight.

According to data gathered by the Dietary Guidelines committee, American adults currently average about 13 percent of their calorie intake from added sugars. Children, teens and young adults tend to eat much more. Nearly half the added sugars Americans consume come from beverages, and nearly one-third come from snacks and sweets, so those might be good places to start cutting back. But added sugars are included in a lot of processed foods. It’s important to be aware of what you’re eating.

To be clear, the 10 percent limit is solely for added sugars — that is, sweeteners added to other foods for flavor, such as sugar in your coffee, or for functional purposes, such as preservation, viscosity, texture, body and browning capacity. The sugars that occur naturally in milk and fruit come loaded with other nutrients — a good tradeoff. But even those products can have added sugars. Flavored milk and sugar-sweetened fruit juice beverages are just two examples to watch out for.

Currently, it can be difficult to differentiate between sugars that occur naturally in a food and sugars that are added. The Nutrient Facts label simply lists “sugars” as a subcategory under “carbohydrates” and doesn’t explain if some or all of those sugars are added. The Food and Drug Administration is finalizing a new Nutrition Facts label, and it looks like it will include added sugars specifically. In the meantime, look for these items on the ingredients list as a clue: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose and turbinado sugar.

For more on the new Dietary Guidelines, see

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Community Nutrition Education.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.