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Sweeteners - sugars

The term sugar is used to describe a wide range of compounds that vary in sweetness. Common sugars include:

Sugars are found naturally in milk products (lactose) and fruits (fructose). Most of the sugar in the American diet is from sugars added in food products.

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Some of the functions of sugars include:

Many foods with added sugars often add calories without nutrients. These foods and drinks are often called "empty" calories. By contrast, foods containing natural sugars (such as fruit) also include vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Most people know that there is a lot of added sugar in regular soda. However, popular "vitamin-type" waters, sports drinks, coffee drinks, and energy drinks also may contain a lot of added sugar.

Food Sources

Some sweeteners are made by processing sugar compounds. Others occur naturally.

Sucrose (table sugar):

Other commonly used sugars:

Sugar alcohols:

Other types of natural sugars:

Side Effects

Table sugar provides calories and no other nutrients. Sweeteners with calories can lead to tooth decay.

Large amounts of sugar-containing foods can contribute to excess weight gain in children and adults. Obesity increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure.

Sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol may cause stomach cramps and diarrhea when eaten in large amounts.


Sugar is on the United States Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) list of safe foods. It contains 16 calories per teaspoon or 16 calories per 4 grams and can be used in moderation.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting the amount of added sugars in your diet. The recommendation extends to all types of added sugars.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of your calories per day. Some ways to reduce your intake of added sugars include:

The American Diabetes Association nutrition guidelines state that you do not need to avoid all sugar and foods with sugar if you have diabetes. You can eat limited amounts of these foods in place of other carbohydrates.

If you have diabetes:


Evert AB, Boucher JL, Cypress M, et al. Nutrition therapy recommendations for the management of adults with diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2014;37(suppl 1):S120-143. PMID: 24357208

Gardner C, Wylie-Rosett J; American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, et al. Nonnutritive sweeteners: current use and health perspectives: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care. 2012;35(8):1798-1808. PMID: 22778165

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, US Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. Published December 2015. Accessed August 12, 2021.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nutritive and nonnutritive sweetener resources. Accessed August 12, 2021.


Review Date: 6/8/2021  

Reviewed By: Meagan Bridges, RD, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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