Why is Sugar Added to Our Foods?

There has been a lot of recent chatter regarding the concept of “hidden sugars,” with some implying that “sugars” are added to foods to make all things sweet, and others making claims that consumers might be eating products that contain more “sugars” than they are led to believe.

Here are the facts.

All-natural sugar/sucrose that is added to foods is identical to sugar found in fruits and vegetables. Sugar plays an essential functional role in food formulation, including as a natural preservative.   Classic recipes confirm sugar’s historic role as a necessary ingredient in breads and other baked goods, cereals, sauces, salad dressings, fruit preserves and more.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans highlight this point,

    These “added sugars” sweeten the flavor of foods and beverages and improve their palatability. They also are added to foods for preservation purposes and to provide functional attributes, such as viscosity, texture, body, and browning capacity.

Some of sugar’s important functional properties:

  • Sugar grabs the available water in foods. This is important because bacteria grow in moist environments. By soaking up the water, sugar acts as a preservative which prevents the growth of the microorganisms that can spoil food. Sugar is a natural preservative that helps extend the shelf life of many products, including breakfast cereal, bread and other baked goods, jams, jellies and fruits.
  • Sugar reacts with protein in the food. The more sugar a food contains the more brown it will get. The scientific name for this change is the Maillard reaction.
  • Bread is made with baker’s yeast, which feeds on sugar. When the yeast consumes the sugar, it releases a gas, carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is what makes the dough rise.
  • Sugar absorbs water and inhibits flour gluten development, providing the proper texture in baked goods. A little sugar = dense texture like in a roll; a lot of sugar = fluffy texture like in a cake.
  • Sugar balances sour, bitter and spicy components in spaghetti and barbeque sauces and the dressings you put on your salad.
  • Vegetables have that fresh-from-the garden taste when a little sugar is added. Sugar naturally enhances flavors and helps strengthen the fiber and cell structure in fruits and vegetables during cooking.
  • A hint of sugar – not enough to sweeten – on vegetables and in whole grain products offsets some of the bitter taste making them more palatable so people will eat them, especially children. In its newest guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges schools and families to take a broader approach to nutrition, considering children’s whole diet pattern – rather than the amount of sugar and other specific nutrients in individual foods.

When and if “sugars” are added, the types of “added sugars” must be declared on the product’s ingredients statement. The ingredients statement will list all-natural sugar as sugar or sucrose, and other caloric sweeteners by name in order of the amount in the product relative to all other ingredients. The amount that is added is incorporated into the “sugars” total in grams …  and 4 grams equals a teaspoon. That’s how you know how much sugar or added sugars is in the foods and beverages you purchase. There’s nothing “hidden” about it.


POSTED IN: All About Sugar, The Sugar Packet