How many calories and what nutrients are in sugar?

Sugar is a source of carbohydrate and energy. It provides 4 calories per gram or 16 calories in a level teaspoon (4 g). This compares to 36 calories for the same amount (4 g) of fat or oil (e.g., butter, margarine, canola oil). On its own, sugar has no other nutrients. However, it occurs naturally in vitamin- and mineral- rich fruits, vegetables and other carbohydrate-containing foods. It is also added to many nutrient-rich foods to improve their flavour, texture and appeal.

Is brown sugar a better choice than white?

Brown sugar is not more nutritious than white. In fact, there are no significant nutritional differences between these types of sugars. Brown sugar is composed of white sugar crystals that have been flavoured and coloured by small quantities of dark sugar syrups (molasses). Brown sugar is produced in two different ways – it is crystallized directly from the dark syrups obtained during the refining process; or dark sugar syrups are added to refined white sugar.

Is it better to eat honey instead of sugar?

Honey, brown sugar, white sugar and maple syrup all have similar nutritional values. All are composed of glucose, fructose, and/or sucrose in varying amounts, provide a similar amount of energy (approximately 4 Calories per gram), and contain insignificant amounts of vitamins and minerals. Sugar and other carbohydrate sweeteners play an important role in making other foods taste better, and, through their many uses in food preservation, cooking, baking, etc., increase the variety of foods available. All of these functions cannot simply be replaced by syrups. 

Is the sugar in fruit better than table sugar?

Sugar is a natural product. Almost all fruits and vegetables contain sugar (sucrose) along with other sugars, like fructose and glucose, in addition to fibre and a variety of vitamins and minerals. The sugar in your sugar bowl is the same substance (sucrose) found naturally in sugar cane, sugar beets, apples, oranges, carrots and other fruits and vegetables we eat. Once digested, the body uses sugar from sugar cane and sugar beets in the same way as the sugars in fruit and vegetables. Regardless of its source, each gram of sugar supplies the body with the same amount of energy per gram (4 Calories per gram). Please see the table below for the sugars content of common fruits and vegetables.

Sugars Content of Fruits and Vegetables: 100 grams, edible portion
  glucose fructose sucrose
tomatoes 1.1 1.4 0
sweet peas 0 0 4.3
sweet corn 0.8 0.6 3.4
carrots 1 1 3.6
peaches 1.1 1.3 5.6
oranges 2.2 2.5 4.2
watermelon 1.6 3.3 3.6
pears 1.9 6.4 1.8
canned pears 4.8 5.1 1.1
apples 2.3 7.6 3.3
mangos 0.7 2.9 9.9
bananas 4.2 2.7 6.5

Does sugar contribute empty calories?

The view that sugar contributes nothing but empty calories fails to recognize the role of sugar in the context of the total diet. It is important to keep in mind that most sugar is consumed as part of the four food groups outlined in Canada's Food Guide. Sugar is seldom eaten as a pure substance but as an ingredient in what is often a food high in vitamins and minerals such as a bran muffin. In fact, a little bit of sugar can help make healthy foods taste better and improve their acceptance. Foods such as chocolate milk, flavoured yogurt, sweetened ready-to-eat and hot cereals, and grain products contain added sugars to improve taste and can help to deliver several essential nutrients (fibre, calcium, vitamin D, folate, etc) to our bodies. This in turn helps us reach our daily nutrient requirements. 

There is no evidence that sugar, at current levels of intake, displaces other nutrients in the diet. In fact, when sugars intakes are very low, nutrient inadequacies can occur. It is only at unusually high levels that sugars may have a negative impact on nutritional status. It is estimated that Canadians get about 11% of their daily energy intake from sugars added to foods. This is considered a moderate amount, and studies have shown that intakes at this level are consistent with healthy eating. Sugars in moderation can be a part of a healthy balanced diet.

Why are sugars added to foods? 

Sugar has many roles in foods. Some of these include: 

  • Sugar acts like a natural preservative for jams and jellies by absorbing extra moisture to prevent bacterial growth;
  • When exposed to heat, the browning reaction of sugar adds flavour and colour to bread crust and cookies;
  • Sugar is used to keep baked goods moist and can delay staleness;
  • Sugar feeds yeast in the fermentation that is part of bread-making; 
  • Sugar contributes to the light and fluffy texture of an angel food cake; and 
  • Sugar is responsible for the smoothness of frozen dairy products such as ice cream. 

When food is made without sugar, other ingredients are added to achieve similar functions of texture, flavour, or colour. Often, sugar is replaced with starches, artificial sweeteners, or food additives that either have the amount of Calories (e.g. starches) or require additional labelling on packages (e.g. food additives). 

What is the best way to store sugar?

Granulated sugars have an excellent shelf life and can be stored in a cool, dry place in their original package for many years. When exposed to moisture, white granulated sugar tends to harden as it dries. Stirring or sifting will usually help to restore its granular state.

To soften brown sugar, place a piece of bread or apple in the jar for a few hours and the sugar will regain its original consistency. Hardened brown sugar can also be placed in the microwave for 20 seconds just before using it in a recipe.

Once opened, all liquid sugars like maple, corn and table syrups, honey, jams and jellies, must be refrigerated in airtight jars. If syrups begin to crystallize, place container in hot water to heat and then stir vigorously to restore liquid consistency.

Are foods labelled "reduced in sugar" or "no added sugar" better choices? 

Food products making the claim "Reduced in Sugar", "Lower in Sugar", or "No Added Sugar" are not necessarily lower in total carbohydrates or Calories. It is important to look at the Nutrition Facts table to compare products and to understand the total Calories a food provides. 

In the example below, the "No Sugar Added" ice cream has 60% less sugars and is slightly higher in fat and total Calories as compared to the reference ice cream. Based on its Nutrition Facts table, this "No Sugar Added" ice cream is sweetened with a sugar alcohol (maltitol, 8 grams per 1/2 cup of ice cream). 

Comparison between a regular and "no sugar added" ice cream

To learn more, please see our resource Clips on Sugars - Facts on Sugars