The Many Names of Sugar

Question mark made of sugar cubesToday, the average American consumes more sugary foods than ever before, equaling about 22 teaspoons – a little less than 1/2 cup – of added sugar each day. That's 20 percent more than we ate in 1970 and adds up to 350 calories a day from sugar alone. For cancer prevention, those added calories are bad news.

If you are like the average American, you may be eating sugar without realizing it because it's hidden in many purchased foods. Brownies are an obvious source of the sweet stuff, but what about your pasta sauce? For anyone who wants to limit sugar intake for a healthy weight – as AICR recommends for lower cancer risk – find out how you can identify added sugars hiding behind a different name.

The Sugar-Cancer Connection

Evidence suggests that sugar by itself does not lead to cancer or "feed" cancer cells, but sugar calories can add up quickly. And extra calories can lead to overweight and weight gain, which do lead to an increased risk for several cancers. Today a third of the country's adult population is classified as obese and child obesity rates are on the rise.

Scientists now know that fat tissue is a metabolically active tissue. Fat cells produce high levels of some hormones and proteins called cytokines that may trigger chronic inflammation, which is linked to increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. AICR's expert report found convincing evidence linking body fatness with colon, postmenopausal breast, endometrial, esophageal, kidney and pancreatic cancers.

In an effort to avoid food and drinks that promote weight gain, AICR recommends avoiding sugary drinks and limiting energy-dense foods, which typically contain high amounts of sugar. However, this may be easier said than done.

The Label Sweets

The best way to limit your sugar intake from packaged foods, as AICR recommends for lower cancer risk, is to read ingredient and nutrition labels. But when added sugar can hide behind almost 100 different names, this task is far from easy.

The ingredients on the label of a food product are listed in descending order with the largest amount first. If a sugar is among the first ingredients listed, or there are many different types of sugar listed, the product most likely has a lot of added sugar.

There are plenty of naturally-occurring sugars, such as the fructose found in fruits or the lactose in milk. Those sugars are considered to be part of a healthful diet and won't be found in the ingredient list. If you do see sugar (or one of its other names) in the ingredient list, you can be sure it was added to the food; this is the type of sugar you want to limit in your diet.

Here's a look behind the terminology.

The Breakdown

Common sweeteners in food products include:

  • syrup (such as high-fructose corn syrup)
  • malt
  • cane
  • caramel
  • juice
  • honey
  • molasses
  • agave nectar

Other words that indicate sugar lurks in a food end in "-ose":

  • fructose (natural sugar from fruits)
  • lactose (natural sugar from milk)
  • sucrose (common table sugar; made from fructose and glucose)
  • maltose (sugar made from grain)
  • glucose (simply sugar, product of photosynthesis)
  • dextrose (form of glucose)

4 Sugar-Cutting Tips

  1. Find the Grams per Serving: Compare different brands to see if amounts of sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts label differ significantly for equal serving sizes. One teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams, so in foods where sugar is added you can estimate how much added sugar is in the product. (In foods such as fruits and yogurt sugar is naturally occurring.) For example, since dairy products naturally contain lactose, try comparing the plain variety against the flavored to see how much of the total sugars are added.
    The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars a day (25 grams) and men consume no more than 9 teaspoons (37 grams). That corresponds to about 100 calories for women and 150 for men. (A teaspoon of sugar is 16 calories.)
  2. Firsts on the Label: If added sugars are listed as the top ingredient(s) in a food or if several different kinds of sugar are in the list, this is likely a food loaded with sugar. Consider other brands or options. Is there an easy way you could make that same food at home using less sugar? (Look at AICR Test Kitchen for ideas).
  3. Reduce Your Sugary Drinks: Drinks are perhaps the biggest source of added sugar in the American diet. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has doubled since the 1970s. A 20-ounce soda contains about 17 teaspoons of sugar (250 calories). If you drink sugar-sweetened beverages every day, try replacing a drink or two with a non-sugary drink.
    Substitution ideas include sparkling waters with a splash of fruit juice, no-calorie sodas, unsweetened (or lightly sweetened) tea or coffee. And water is always a good choice.
  4. Manage Your Sweet Tooth: When you do eat sugary foods, keep the amounts small. Consider satisfying your sweet tooth more often with naturally sweet fruits instead. You'll be getting vitamins, fiber and phytochemicals that may also help reduce your risk for cancer. Unsweetened frozen and canned fruits are easy to keep on hand and have as a snack or dessert option.

For strategies on healthy eating and staying a healthy weight, visit Reduce Your Cancer Risk.


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