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Naturally Occurring vs. Added Sugar in Dairy Products

National Dairy Month

Did you know that milk, plain yogurt, and other unsweetened dairy products naturally contain sugar? This sugar is called lactose and is reflected on the Nutrition Facts panel on the product under carbohydrates.


This naturally occurring sugar should not be confused with sweetened dairy products like flavored yogurts or chocolate milk.



Milk and other dairy products are rich sources of calcium, protein, potassium, and other much needed micro nutrients. In addition, sugar isn’t always bad. Remember sugar is a simple form of carbohydrate which means it digests quickly and is broken down into glucose. This glucose heads into the bloodstream to then bring energy to our muscles for movement and other places throughout the body. Glucose is the primary and preferred source of fuel for the brain too!


Dairy with added sugar isn’t always bad either - it all depends on how much added sugar you are getting in your overall diet. For example, if you love chocolate milk as your evening “fun food” and avoid all added sugars throughout the rest of your day, then go ahead! If you have chocolate milk in the morning, then sweetened yogurt for a snack, and then ice cream later in the day, it might be time to take account of how much added sugar you are getting in your overall diet.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is making it easier for consumers to identify added sugars by the redesign of the Nutrition Facts label. Most labels will now contain an additional line on the label that identifies the number of grams of added sugar.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of your daily intake. For example, if you eat on average about 2,000 calories per day, then you would limit your intake to 200 calories per day from added sugars.


To put this into the context of milk, we have to do a little math. In the comparison photo above, plain milk had 13g of sugar (and we know none of this is added since it is plain milk). The chocolate milk had 24g of sugar. So we subtract the plain milk sugar content from the chocolate milk sugar content to get the amount of added sugar (24-13 = 11g).


We know that sugar contains 4 calories per gram so then we multiply the 11g by 4 to get the total number of calories from added sugar (44 calories). So if we are limited to 200 calories from added sugar we still have ~150 calories from added sugar before we reach our max.


Bottom line:


All forms of milk, and most dairy products contain sugar, but there is no reason to avoid the plain products with no added sugars. You just need to decide whether dairy products are where you want to get your added sugars from. If you would like to get them elsewhere in your diet, then opt for plain or unsweetened.


Stay tuned for our next dairy month blog: Why Dairy is the Cornerstone of Calcium Rich Foods.


Author: Leslie Ouellette-Todd, MS, RD, LD, MPH