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How to Understand Sugar and Carbohydrates in Food Labels

Updated on April 21, 2015
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy writes about cooking, hobbies, and many other topics. She has published hundreds of articles online and in newspapers and magazines.

How Many Grams in a Teaspoon of Sugar?

Each teaspoon of sugar has about three grams of carbs
Each teaspoon of sugar has about three grams of carbs
Sugar is found more places than you think!
Sugar is found more places than you think!

Which Foods Contain Carbohydrates?

We live in a world of sugar-free sodas and sugar-laden breakfast cereals. In one day, we can righteously use a packet of artificial sweetener in our morning cup-of-whatever, drink a diet cola and then ruin our good intentions and our health by eating or drinking excess sugar found in other foods.

Years ago, people used to talk about ‘sugar diabetes,’ as though the only things you needed to avoid were desserts and other foods that are obviously full of sugar. Anything else – juice, fruit, potatoes, corn, salted chips, whatever, was considered safer to eat. Even if it was fattening (such as the chips). While it’s true that certain foods should be eaten in moderation (if at all), it’s not true that all non-sugar foods are safer to eat than those that are blatantly filled with sugar.

Sugar is a carbohydrate. Other foods are also carbohydrates, such as starches and even milk, vegetables and fruits.We will not discuss all carbohydrates here; instead, we will talk about how to interpret certain foods and their labels to get an understanding of what you’re eating. And how to make healthy choices in your daily diet.

A carb is a carb is a carb. It doesn’t matter what form the carb comes in, it’s still a carb. Some carbs process more slowly (and less harmfully) in your body. Anything with some fiber or more substance to it is a bit easier on your body than a straight shot of sugar.

Drinking a 12-ounce can of soda is like putting 10 or more spoons of sugar in your body!

There are four grams of sugar in one teaspoon serving.
There are four grams of sugar in one teaspoon serving.
Each cube represents one spoon of sugar.
Each cube represents one spoon of sugar.
Juice has a higher sugar content than fresh fruit, and generally does not have the fiber found in fruit.
Juice has a higher sugar content than fresh fruit, and generally does not have the fiber found in fruit.

Facts about Sugar and Carbohydrates

Here are a few facts about carbohydrates and sugar, and some points about common foods that can raise your blood sugar more than you might prefer.

What is a grams of sugar? One of the first things to learn is how to translate the ‘grams’ of sugar or carbs in a label. A teaspoon of sugar has about four grams of sugar in it.

Read the label! Check that can of soft drink and see what you’re about to put in your body! Four ounces of A&W Cream Soda has 46 grams of sugar in it. That’s more than 11 teaspoons of sugar! Classic Coke is a bit better, but at 39 grams, it still gives you almost 10 teaspoons of sugar in one can. According to, Mountain Dew Game Fuel (a 20-ounce serving) has 77 grams of sugar. That’s more than 19 teaspoons of the sweet stuff.

If you wouldn’t eat 10 teaspoons of sugar out of a bowl, why would you drink it out of a can?

Fruits and Juices: Fruits are carbohydrates, but because they are in the solid form and contain fiber, they don’t raise your blood sugar as rapidly (or as high) as a glass of juice does. Diabetics are taught that fruit juice is basically concentrated sugar. You might think you’re doing a good thing for your body by having !00-percent juice drinks for breakfast, but you’re actually giving it a hit of sugar. As with other foods that have nutritional value, go easy on juice.

One cup of orange juice has about 25 grams of sugar, which translates to slightly more than six teaspoons full. It also provides 137 percent of the daily value of vitamin C.

A fresh orange of equal size (about one cup of orange sections) has 21 grams of sugar (just more than five spoons). However, it also provides four grams of fiber (about 17 percent of your daily needs), which helps offset the effect of the sugar on your body.

Sugar Sugar, by the Archies (Check out the frog, the dog and the rabbit). Sugar has always symbolized something desirable.

Potatoes, rice and corn are starches, not vegetables

The fiber in potatoes helps offset the carbs, but moderation is still important.
The fiber in potatoes helps offset the carbs, but moderation is still important. | Source
Rice is a carb, just like bread or potatoes.
Rice is a carb, just like bread or potatoes. | Source
Corn is another starchy food.
Corn is another starchy food. | Source

Do Starchy Foods Have Carbohydrates?

Certain starchy foods (in some cases, people think of them as vegetables, but they are not vegetables) have a similar effect on your body as sugar. Potatoes, corn and rice convert quickly in your body and affect your system much like sugar.

This doesn’t mean to avoid those foods, it just means to balance out your diet. Have a small or medium baked potato rather than a large one, and skip the bread for that meal. Breads, of course, are starches and will affect you much like sugar does.

A medium baked potato has about 37 grams of carbs in it. Of those, two grams are considered ‘sugars,’ but the effect of the potato will be similar to sugar in your body. Since the potato also has four grams of fiber, it is more offset than if you ate a similar amount of low-fiber bread made from bleached, refined flour.

Always go for high-fiber choices wherever you can. The value to your body is huge, and it can help balance your intake of sugar and carbs.

It is important to understand that potatoes, rice and corn are not vegetables. These are high in carbohydrates and should be treated like a serving of bread or pasta.

Other high-carb foods are dried beans and legumes. However, these are high in protein and have a ton of fiber. Therefore, the effect on your body isn’t quite the same as eating a potato or a bowl of pasta. The fiber content helps your body slow down while it processes the carbs in dried beans. And the protein offsets it a bit as well. Just don’t pile a ton of cheese on your refried beans, or load your baked beans with fatty bacon!

Cereal can have a high sugar content

Check the label for sugar content when you buy cereal.
Check the label for sugar content when you buy cereal. | Source

Breakfast Cereals and Carb Content

The big culprit in commercially popular cereals is the sugar content. Check that part of the label, even if the box says it is oh-so-healthy and good for you.

A one-cup serving of Multi-Grain Cheerios has 24 grams of carbohydrates, of which six grams (1-1/2 spoons) are sugar. This is considerably better than the nearly four spoons of sugar you’ll get in a cup of Kellogg’s Apple Jacks.

And just because something says ‘bran’ on the label, don’t assume it is a good bet for healthy eating. Kellogg’s Raisin Bran Crunch (not regular Raisin Bran) has 20 grams of sugar (five spoons) in one serving and only two grams of fiber.

Look for unsweetened cereals that allow you to add whatever sweetener you want, in whatever amount you feel is healthy. If the cereal is whole grain, that’s even better; it will add fiber to your diet.

If you make a few adjustments in your family’s diet, such as cutting out sweetened soft drinks, eating starches in moderation, opting for fresh fruit whenever possible and avoiding cereals laden with sugar, you’ll help protect your loved ones from diabetes and obesity, and you’ll feel better about what you put on the table.


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