Added Sugar in Dairy Foods

dairy sugar

The amount of sugar we eat has become a big concern. It’s a focus of the recently released 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and rightfully so, research indicates that high sugar intake is linked to a myriad of health problems. But are all sugars created equally? No…Trying to cut back on sugar can mean limiting extra sweets but it should not mean eliminating natural sugars found in wholesome foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, and dairy foods. But where do dairy foods fit in? Does milk contain added sugar and how can I find out?

Natural vs. Added Sugars:

First, it’s important to know what sugar is…it’s a carbohydrate that your body needs to function properly. Carbohydrate is your body’s #1 source of fuel for exercise and it is your brain’s only source of fuel, so your body requires carbohydrate in order to function properly. In fact, dipping below 150 grams of carbohydrate per day can result in feeling fatigued and lethargic.

Added Sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to foods when they are processed or prepared, such as soft drinks, candy, cakes, and cookies. The dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugars to less than 48 grams  or 12 teaspoons per day (Note: 1 teaspoon = 4 grams).

Natural Sugars are found naturally in food such as the fructose found in fruit or the lactose found in milk. These sugars are not added. Foods with natural sugars also contain many other important nutrients like fiber, essential amino acids and vitamins and minerals. There is no recommended limit on natural sugars.

What About Milk’s Sugar?

All milk contains natural sugar. Lactose is a simple sugar comprised of 1 glucose molecule and 1 galactose molecule. It is not a refined or processed sugar and can be part of a healthy diet. An 8oz glass of milk contains about 12g of lactose. When you drink milk, not only do you get energy from natural sugar, but essential vitamins, minerals, and protein!  Eating dairy foods helps to build strong bones, lower blood pressure, reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and maintain a healthy body weight.

lactose molecule

What about Flavored Milk?

Flavored milk, unlike white milk does contain added sugars; however the remainder of the nutrient package remains the same (protein, calcium potassium, vitamin D…). Over the past 5-10 years, processing plants have worked on reformulating their flavored milks, especially those sold to kids as part of the school lunch program, to reduce added sugar by an average of 38%. Only about 40 calories in flavored milk come from added sugar. (More on Chocolate milk in schools).

Does Yogurt Have Added Sugar?

The answer depends on the type of yogurt you are considering. While all yogurt contains some naturally occurring lactose, some yogurts also contain added sugars. Yogurt is a great addition to your diet. With naturally lower levels of lactose, it is well-tolerated by many who are lactose intolerant, it is packed with protein and other bone building nutrients, and yogurt’s probiotics help support a healthy digestive system.

If you are aiming to reduce overall added sugar from yogurt, select yogurts that are unsweetened, plain, or minimally sweetened.

Another great option can be to buy plain yogurt and sweeten it at home with jam, agave, honey or fruit. You will likely add less sugar at home than what is contained in pre-sweetened yogurts.

How Can I Determine the Difference Between Natural & Added Sugars in Yogurt?

Unfortunately food labels still list total sugars instead of identifying the amount of added sugar.

• To estimate added sugar in flavored yogurt, take the number of grams of sugar and subtract it by the grams of sugar in the same brand’s plain counterpart.

• If you are aiming for 0 grams of added sugar, choose plain, unflavored Greek or regular style yogurt.

• If you are looking for yogurt with less added sugar (1-5 grams), choose 100 calorie Greek or regular yogurts or light regular varieties. *Keep in mind that these may have non-caloric, sweeteners added.

What to remember:

  • There are both natural and artificial sugars
  • Aim to reduce artificial sugars to < 12 teaspoons / day
  • Dairy foods contain natural sugar called lactose
  • Dairy foods only contain added sugars when they are flavored
  • Opt to eliminate added sugars by choosing plain, unsweetened varieties of yogurt or white milk
  • Flavored milk contributes minimal added sugars to children’s’ diets while delivering the same nutritional value as white milk.

Kayli Cummings, RD

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