Total sugar? Added sugar? Free sugar? Which one should I look at?

Total sugar? Added sugar? Free sugar? Which one should I look at?

There has been persistent health advice to limit sugary food and drinks intake. However, how can we apply this in our daily life? How can we ensure our sugar intake does not exceed the recommended daily allowance?


We will go about this in the sequence of the types of sugars, amount of sugar we can take daily, and why we should avoid excessive consumption of sugar.


Grain and grain products, starchy vegetable, fruits, milk, and sugar are all carbohydrate-containing foods. Carbohydrates are divided into three types, namely monosaccharide, disaccharide, and polysaccharide, with monosaccharide being the simplest form, and polysaccharide being the most complex form. However, all these carbohydrates will be digested and broken down into the simplest form of sugar (monosaccharides) such as glucose, fructose, and galactose before they are absorbed into the blood. These sugars will then be utilised by the body to provide energy. It is safe to say that all carbohydrates are sugars since they will be broken down into sugar.

However, when we look at food labeling, under the carbohydrate composition, there will be a list of total sugars, added sugars or free sugars, and dietary fibers, but there are cases where none of these is listed.


It is important to know that there is a difference between naturally existing sugar and added sugar.


Sugar does not necessarily have to be sweet, because bread and milk, the normal unflavoured ones do not taste sweet, but they still contain carbohydrates that will then be broken down into sugar, and this is what we call naturally existing sugar.


On the other hand, in the case where the bread is added with cream or sweet fillings, there should be a label indicating the amount of added or free sugar for the cream or sweet fillings. The same goes to strawberry or chocolate flavoured milk, where a label specifying the amount of added or free sugar from the strawberry or chocolate flavourings can help consumers make better choices.


Walking through the food labelling, when we see total sugars, it comprises of all the naturally existing sugars and added or free sugars in the food. Whereas free sugars are present in whole (intact, cooked, or dried) fruit and vegetables or dairy products and include all sugars added by the manufacturer, cook, or the consumer as well as sugars that are naturally present in juiced or pureed fruit and vegetables.


On the other hand, added sugars are defined as refined sugars added to foods during processing or preparation (e.g., brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, and naturally occurring sugars that are isolated from a whole food and concentrated so that sugar is the primary component, e.g., fruit juice concentrates). Added sugars excludes naturally occurring sugars present in intact fruit, vegetables, or dairy products or in juiced or pureed fruit and vegetables.


WHO guideline recommended to limit sugar intake to not more than 10% from total energy intake in a day.


This concludes to only 200 kilocalories of sugar intake allowed for people whose daily energy intake is 2000 kilocalories. How much sugar is 200 kilocalories? 1 gram of carbohydrate is equivalent to 4 kilocalories. Therefore, 200 kilocalories will be 50 grams of carbohydrate. Listed in the table below is the amount of each type of sugar that is equivalent to 15 grams of carbohydrate. The reason why the list is given based on 15 grams of carbohydrate is because, it is advisable to not eat more than 15 grams of simple sugar in one seating as that will cause sugar spikes and may affect insulin sensitivity over time.


Types of sugar

How much is equivalent to 15 grams of carbohydrate


3 teaspoons/ 1 tablespoon

White sugar

3 teaspoons/ 1 tablespoon

Malt drink

4 teaspoons

Fruit jam

3 teaspoons/ 1 tablespoon

Condensed milk

4 teaspoons


WHO further recommended the general population to reduce their sugar consumption to below 5% of total daily energy intake to provide additional health benefits. This is considered to be an effort to prevent the development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many more. Reducing sugar intake alone might not be enough, therefore, reducing sugar intake along with saturated and trans-fat intake reduction should be the goal. Let us all start being more mindful of what we eat. To start off, just imagine how much sugar will you be taking daily if one tablespoon of chili sauce contains one teaspoon of sugar, half cup of canned fruits contains one tablespoon of sugar, one sachet of teh tarik contains 5 teaspoons of sugar. This is not a tell-off to make you avoid sugar at all costs, it is actually fine to enjoy a little bit of sugar from time to time, we just have to be mindful of the amount we are taking.




USFDA. (2022). Added Sugars on the New Nutrition Facts Label. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. nutrition-facts-label

World Health Organization (WHO). (2015, March 4). WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children.

Mela, D. J., & Woolner, E. M. (2018). Perspective: Total, Added, or Free? What Kind of Sugars Should We Be Talking About? Advances in Nutrition, 9(2), 63–69.

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