Should You Worry About The Sugar In Dairy?
By Johannah Sakimura, RD, Everyday Health Columnist
One of the unfortunate side effects of the widespread campaign against added sugar has been misplaced concern over the natural sugar found in milk and fruit. In particular, I’ve seen a lot of misguided chatter about low-fat dairy products being less healthy because they contain more sugar.
Milk, plain yogurt, and other unsweetened dairy products contain the naturally-occurring sugar lactose, while fruit contains fructose. These sugars shouldn’t be confused with added sugars; sweeteners such as corn syrup and cane sugar that are added to packaged foods and beverages during processing. Unlike added sugars, which contribute plenty of calories but zero nutritional value, the natural sugars in dairy and fruit are part of a nutrient-dense package, so they aren’t something you need to worry about limiting in your diet. Fruit provides vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which incidentally helps to slow down your body’s absorption of sugar. Milk and yogurt are among the richest sources of calcium (though there are plenty of good non-dairy sources, too), and they also provide protein, potassium, and other micronutrients. What’s more, whole fruit and unsweetened dairy products aren’t as concentrated in sugar as soda, candy, and desserts made with large doses of added sugar. Regular milk and plain yogurt don’t contain any added sugar, but keep in mind that many flavored yogurts and milks do, which is why their sugar counts are higher on the nutrition label. The American Heart Association’s recommended cap of 6 to 9 teaspoons (tsp) of sugar per day applies only to added sugar, because that’s the type that has been linked to weight gain and other health problems when consumed in excess. Likewise, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s proposal calls for limiting added sugar — not all sugar — to 10 percent of total calories.
Sizing Up Sugar in Low-Fat Dairy
When two controversial topics — sugar and low-fat dairy — collide, the conditions are ripe for misinformation to spread. I’ve seen numerous bloggers and health gurus claiming that skim milk is “loaded with sugar.” But if you refer to the labels or check the USDA nutrition database, you’ll see that whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, and skim milk all contain 12 grams (g) of sugar (lactose) per cup. When it comes to plain yogurt, there’s more variation. For example, 1 cup of Stoneyfield fat-free plain yogurt contains 16 g of sugar, a cup of low-fat yogurt has 15 grams, and a cup of whole milk yogurt has 12 g. The fat-free and low-fat versions don’t contain any added sugar — the higher sugar content simply results from a displacement effect. When fat is removed, the yogurt contains a higher proportion of the watery phase that includes lactose, so the amount of sugar in the same volume of yogurt (1 cup) increases. (If you spot a brand of whole milk with 11 g of sugar per cup, it’s also a function of this displacement effect. There are slight differences from brand to brand, which may be due to modest differences in composition.) In plain Greek yogurt, the amount of sugar is more consistent across fat levels. One cup (8 ounces) of Fage Greek yogurt, whether 0 percent fat, 2 percent fat, or full-fat, provides 9 g of sugar. Greek yogurt contains less sugar than traditional varieties because some of the lactose is drained off in the liquid whey during the straining process.
Small differences in sugar content aren’t a good reason to avoid low-fat versions of plain yogurt: These sugars are not added sugars, and the increase is trivial. I understand that some people prefer full-fat dairy products because of their taste, or see them as more natural, and I think it’s fine to go that route if you’re careful with portions and make room in your diet for plenty of unsaturated fats (check out the post Low-Fat vs. Full-Fat: The Great Dairy Debate for my full take). But don’t choose whole milk and full-fat yogurt over non-fat for the purpose of cutting back on sugar.
Of course, companies are well aware that “lower sugar” sells with health-conscious shoppers these days, so it’s not surprising that Coca-Cola spotted a window of opportunity and brought a new milk boasting 50 percent less sugar to the market. Their Fairlife milk also has 50 percent more protein and 30 percent more calcium per serving compared to standard milk, but you’ll pay twice as much for it. As I’ve discussed, the natural sugar in milk isn’t a health concern, and I personally don’t think it’s worth it to pay double the price for a designer beverage that offers 5 more grams of protein when most adults are already getting more than enough in their diet.
Watch the Added Sugar in Flavored Yogurts
The amount of added sugar that is mixed into sweetened, flavored yogurts and milks is worth scrutinizing, however. I spotted one single-serve Greek yogurt with 32 g of total sugar — and none of it was coming from fruit because it was caramel macchiato-flavored. After subtracting the 6 grams of lactose that are found in an equivalent portion of plain Greek yogurt, I calculated that each 5-ounce tub contains 26 g — or 6.5 tsp — of added sugar. Yikes! A cup of chocolate milk can have up to 14 g (3.5 tsp) of added sugar. Sweetened non-dairy milks can be loaded, too. One popular brand of chocolate almond milk crams 5 tsp of added sugar into every cup.
Bottom line: The sugar that occurs naturally in plain dairy products isn’t problematic, so don’t worry about a few extra grams in low-fat versions. That’s exactly the kind of obsession with sugar I want to discourage. But do pay attention to the amount of added sugar in sweetened products, like yogurts. To avoid added sugar altogether, buy plain yogurt and top it with naturally sweet fruit. If you prefer the convenience of flavored single-serve yogurts, look for varieties that list fruit ahead of sweeteners on the ingredients list and contain less than 18 g of total sugar per container (that’s about 2 to 2.5 tsp of added sugar in addition to the lactose in yogurt and fructose in fruit).
This article originally appeared on EverydayHealth.com: Don’t Sweat Over Sugar in Plain Dairy