No Sugar Added vs Sugar-Free: What to Look for On a Food Label
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Nicole Avena

Though you may be aware of the dangers of sugar, getting it out of your diet can be a challenge. One reason is that many types of sugar are hidden on food labels.

Avoid Hidden Sugars

Even if you aren’t adding sugar to the foods and beverages you enjoy, you still may be consuming sugars without even realizing it. Many so-called health foods contain added sugars. Always read food labels to identify these hidden sugars.

Types of Sugar Claims

When looking at food labels, sugar content claims can be confusing and disingenuous. This is especially true since many products attempt to hide or disguise their sugar content.

On food labels, sugar may appear as glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, lactose, dextrose, or starch. Keep an eye out for corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar, and honey, which also contain sugar.

There are also terms such as “no sugar added,” “reduced sugar,” and “sugar-free.” What’s the difference? Let’s take a look:

No Sugar Added

As the name suggests, no sugar or ingredient containing sugar was added during the production of the food. It also may appear as “without sugar added” on the label.

Reduced Sugar

This term means that a product has at least 25% less sugars than a regular version of the product. It also may be called “lower sugar,” “low in sugar,” or “less sugar.”


The term “sugar-free” is a misnomer since a small amount of sugar still may be present in such foods. Per regulations, a sugar-free product must contain less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving size. On labels, sugar-free may also be referred to as “sugarless,” “no sugar,” “zero sugar,” “free of sugar,” or “trivial source of sugar.”

So, how many products masquerading as “healthy” options still contain sugar? Here are just a few…

5 “Healthy” Foods That Actually Contain Hidden Sugars

1. Flavored Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is a good source of probiotics, which may benefit your gut by adding the good bacteria your intestinal tract needs to stay healthy. Packed with protein, Greek yogurt is often portrayed as a healthy food. But some flavored varieties also include large amounts of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients, so be sure to check the labels before you buy them.

2. Pre-made Protein Smoothies

A protein smoothie can be a great way to start the day. However, some smoothie brands try to hide their high sugar content. If necessary, opt for homemade smoothies to ensure you’re consuming healthy ingredients (without the added sugars).

3. Milk Alternatives

Going dairy-free can be beneficial for brain health and overall well-being for some people, especially those who have milk allergies or sensitivities. Unfortunately, some flavored milk alternatives – vanilla, chocolate, or pumpkin spice – can have high amounts of sugar per serving, so exercise caution when purchasing them.

4. Gummy Vitamins

Taking nutritional supplements is a great way to make sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need. Be aware that when you or your kids take gummy vitamins you may be getting a dose of sugar along with the nutrients. Parents are strongly cautioned when purchasing gummies for their children, since many contain excessive amounts of sugar.

5. Salad Dressing

Eating more greens and veggies provides your brain with a variety of nutrients and antioxidants. But dousing salads with sugar-laden, store-bought dressings can turn your healthy meal into one that has far more sugar than you realized. Consider making your own healthy salad dressing.

Now that we’ve looked at some commonly-consumed foods that contain hidden sugars, here are some practical ways to avoid sugar every day.

3 Helpful Ways to Reduce Your Sugar Intake

No Sugar Added 2 Balance Your Blood Sugar

Low blood sugar levels are associated with overall lower brain activity, including in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain’s brake system. Low activity in the PFC can translate to more cravings and bad decisions.

These simple tips can help you keep your blood sugar balanced:

  • Eat protein and healthy fats at every meal.
  • Have smaller meals throughout the day. This helps eliminate the blood sugar rollercoaster ride that can impact your emotions and increase cravings.
  • Replace simple sugars and refined carbs with healthier options. For example, swapping candy for a square of sugar-free dark chocolate can help you kick a sugar habit.

Increase Your Serotonin

Those who are naturally low in serotonin, sometimes called the “happiness hormone,” often intuitively crave sugar-filled, carbohydrate-rich foods such as pies, cookies, candy, and chocolate because carbohydrates raise serotonin levels and increase feelings of well-being.

These are “mood foods” and are often used to self-medicate an underlying mood issue. Avoid these quick fixes because they can cause long-term health problems.

Serotonin can be supported with a healthy diet, exercise, taking supplements, and getting quality sleep. When you have plenty of serotonin, you’re less likely to seek out sugar.

Avoid Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners such as acesulfame potassium (Ace K), aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose may provide sweetness without calories, but they come at a price. These sweeteners may contribute to high insulin levels, lead to a slower metabolism, negatively skew the good-to-bad bacterial ratio in your gut, and retrain your taste buds to crave sugar- and fat-filled foods over fruits and vegetables.

If you want to avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners, there are better, healthier options to consider. To add a little sweetness to your coffee or tea, reach for natural, lower-calorie sweeteners like monk fruit powder, erythritol, or unprocessed stevia. In their raw and natural state, these are much healthier choices than their refined counterparts and include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber.

Note: stevia should be used in limited amounts as it can keep the tastebuds hooked on the “sweet” taste of foods.

Outsmart Your Cravings

Consuming large amounts of sugar can be detrimental to your health. Many illnesses have been linked to excessive sugar intake over extended periods of time.

Always read labels to identify which products are no sugar added, reduced sugar, or sugar-free, and to determine if a product contains hidden sugars.

If you’ve been struggling to curb your sweet tooth, these three tips may help you outsmart your sugar cravings.

Also, if you’re looking for a science-based program to help you cut out the sugar and reduce cravings, be sure to purchase Dr. Avena’s book, Why Diets Fail.

At BrainMD, we’re dedicated to providing the highest purity nutrients to improve your physical health and overall well-being. For more information about our full list of brain healthy supplements, please visit us at BrainMD.

Keith Rowe