What Does “Sugar-Free” Really Mean?


As some of you know, I’ve been on a journey with my diet from whole foods-based to strict anti-candida to where I am today–what I call anti-candida “maintenance.” So, if you’ve been reading me for a while, or if you check back through to some of the earlier posts, what you’ll find is a broad array of different natural sweeteners (not to mention some pretty abysmal photography in those early days). Throughout, though, I’ve always used natural alternatives to sugar.

Recently, I received a message from reader Tiffany. Tiffany had stumbled upon this earlier post and was appalled that I’d referred to it as “sugar-free.” That got me thinking about all the different interpretations of the term, and what it truly means.

In today’s video, I talk about my understanding of the term “sugar-free” and what you should expect when you see it on a label (or a blog post).

I’d love to know YOUR take on this issue–do you use the term, “sugar-free”? If so, in what context? 

Highlights and Links from this Video:

[Disclosure: this post may contain affiliate links. If you buy using these links, at no cost to you, I will earn a small percentage of the sale.]



  1. Gina Sengupta says

    Hi Ricki,
    I love your site. You explained this really well. I realize there are sugars in everything but as a diabetic who chooses not to be insulin-dependent I am very careful about the sugar I consume. Unfortunately, being sugar-sensitive I am not able to even consume agave. Both white table sugar and agave have about 4 grams of sugars in a tsp. of each substance. True, agave being a more natural sugar, your body doesn’t release as much insulin as when you eat white table sugar, but since it is essentially fructose in a refined form as the agave sap is heated at a low temperature breaking it down into carbs and sugars. For most people this isn’t a problem, but for me I can’t even eat a banana because it will spike my sugars. Stevia drops and xylitol in small amounts have become my best sources for dessert-making if I want something sweet. Tons of “sugar-free” recipes often call for dates or agave or banana and while they are natural sugars, fructose is a simple sugar so many of us limit ourselves when it comes to fruit. Diabetics may be the ones who take offense to “sugar-free” recipes because they are not able to use them. But its not the end of the world. We can take dessert recipes and modify them. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for this, Gina. Personally, I’d always choose coconut sugar over agave nectar, both because it’s lower on the glycemic index and also because it’s a less processed sweetener. But I’m more like you when it comes to sweeteners–I tend to rely on stevia and xylitol primarily (and I can’t have bananas right now, either). But I do understand the frustration for people who seek out desserts or other foods with no added sweeteners when they see the label “sugar-free,” and are then disappointed for find dates or bananas!

  2. Great explanation Ricki. I’m pretty much in the same camp as you when it comes to talking about sugar and consider sugar-free pretty much just to mean free from white refined sugar not necessarily free from other sweeteners. I’d never really considered naturally occurring sugars but to me that’s pretty much like when people say they don’t eat carbs and obviously they do – but they’re just referring to a certain type of carb like rice, pasta, bread, etc.
    I still find sugar a confusing issue. I tend to favour coconut sugar & coconut syrup with a little stevia and maple syrup from time to time but then I hear all this stuff about fructose vs. glucose…

    • The fructose/glucose issue is a whole other topic, Emma!! In general, if fructose is naturally occurring (as in fruit), I am not concerned about it. With something like agave nectar where it becomes highly concentrated, I would be more cautious (though I do still use agave on the rare occasion when it seems nothing else will do!). But all sweeteners, no matter low glycemic or not, are still pretty empty when it comes to nutritional value. So I figure our ancestors had it right on that topic: added sweeteners should really be reserved for special occasions (though I have to admit I don’t always practice that same philosophy). 😉

  3. Marilyn Barnes says

    Thanks for the explanation. I’m looking forward to the next. My go-to sweeteners are stevia and palm sugar. I also use Swerve sweeteners especially if I need a powdered sugar replacement.

    • I’m with you on the stevia, Marilyn! I also like xylitol, which is simiilar to erythritol (the main ingredient in Swerve, I think?). And palm sugar is just so delicious! 🙂

  4. Kathleen says

    I am someone who has had a very stubborn case of Candida. It took years to get the diagnosis. I had developed sensitivities to most foods by that point. I use the term “sweeteners” as that is what I was told to eliminate along with grains, soy, dairy, and vinegar. When I see “sugar”. I think of white granulated sugar and brown sugar. I have only started to use stevia and have learned that one has to be careful of which brand you use because some brands have added ingredients. Letting any sweetener back in to my diet seems to set me right back. So, I am pretty careful because I have suffered some serious effects from Candida. I enjoy your blog, Ricki.

    • I’m the same, Kathleen. Even with years of an anti-candida diet, being extremely careful about what I eat, I do still have flare-ups that seem to occur far too easily. So my ND and I are still working on it! I feel the same way about the term “sugar.” As for stevia, I use only pure stevia extract without any fillers or additives. You can get pure stevia powder from Nunaturals, too. And here’s to continued control over your candida! 🙂

  5. Ricki,
    I too use the term sugar free to just indicate that there is no added brown or white sugar. I am amazed when folks get uptight about all of this because we are all trying to help each other create and share wonderful recipes that are much healthier than the old dessert recipes we all grew up with. I avoid zylitol because of the processing it goes through. I will listen to your video on that and let you know what I think. Zylitol certainly makes a lighter, fluffier dessert than coconut sugar does.
    Keep up the good work.

    • I agree, Donna! I do understand that some people are trying to be more specific, but if that’s the case, then they shouldn’t be using the term “sugar-free” for honey or dates, either, for instance. I’ve only recently come to accept xylitol, so I’ll talk about why in the video as well! 🙂

  6. this is such an interesting topic..I’ve learned.
    what I have noticed is people use generic term– sugar free, in the same way as the word Kleenex is used. it is just a general ingredient name that the general public uses in a general way. when there is a health concern–it becomes important,,dictated by the condition. I can’t have a single blueberry,,so all names of “sugarfree” are of interest to me. it can be so frustrating-I have learned patience. :))
    your website is very informative,,really

    • Such a good point, Nadia! It’s true–most of us become much more interested in the details of such things once we have a health issue. I know I never really paid much attention to all this before I had candida. Are you able to have fruits at all? What about beets? Or maybe you could have this ice cream?

  7. I must start with – you have only been blogging for six years- it feels like I have reading your advice for over ten. A wise and well versed woman you are! You stated what I try to tell people, in such a manner… Very well laid out and easy to understand. I usually only try to break it down during those deep conversations. Otherwise I just say that our house is refined sugar free. Or that I try to avoid processed white sugar. It’s an ongoing process in our house, when the hubby brings home assorted treats… The most heard phrase at our house is, the yeasties made me eat / do it! Hehe!
    I will forever be grateful for all that you have shared. It has been through your blog that I was introduced to ingredients that I might never have otherwise used. I routinely use coconut sugar, and little sprinklings’ of stevia, a few other as well. Thank you for the work you put into sharing and educating others, I have learned so much!!! Now onto dessert… What to make… From one sweets aficionado.

    • Tammy, thank you so much for this kind comment! 🙂 (It feels like more than 6 years to me, too–ha ha!!). I’m so glad the info has been helpful. And yes, on to dessert!! 😉 (I love your phrase about the “yeasties,” too–we do need to make light of it sometimes!).

  8. Michelle says

    Hi, Ricki! to me, sugar-free means no added sweeteners. the only sugars i (currently) consume are from whole fruits/veggies. i also don’t do dried fruit. so, no maple syrup or brown rice syrup or any other of those delicious, more natural sugars. it has been challenging for sure, and i can’t wait for the day that i can add small amounts of maple syrup back in (my naturopath wants me off all sugars for 3 months, i’m two weeks in..).

    • Michelle, congrats on being free of added sugars for two weeks! That’s a great start. By the end of the 3 months, you’ll feel as if this is old hat. 😉 I guess for me, when I eat anything with carbs, I automatically think, “sugars,” so I’ve been going with the general “sugar-free” (as in, no added cane sugar) for simplicity. But reading everyone’s comments, I see it’s not simple at all! I’m going to re-think my phrasing and be more specific so that people know exactly what they’re getting. 🙂 Hang in there!!

  9. Great video Ricki! It’s interesting to hear this perspective. I’ve always considered sugar-free to be no added sweeteners containing sugars. So to me sugar-free would be, for example, free of white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar, etc. But I wouldn’t count naturally occurring sugar, say in whole foods like fruit or even eggs! 🙂

    • I know it’s a surprise that there are “sugars” in eggs! And in reality, I don’t count all those natural sugars when I say “sugar-free,” either. I just mean SUGAR, the substance. I think of things like maple syrup, brown rice syrup, etc. as “natural sugars,” which to me are a step (or two) up from white sugar. But I guess it’s just a matter of degree!

      • I thought this was a well defined take on sugars. I have a small cake business and refer to this as refined sugar free. When talking to clients with dietary restrictions I try to explain the carbohydrate’s role in baked goods as well as artificial sweeteners.

  10. You are welcome Ricki. I love your site!

  11. Ricki,

    FABULOUS video, Ricki. It’s a confusing issue with all of the different kinds of sweeteners out there, isn’t it?

    • Thanks so much, Adrienne! I think it gets even more confusing by the day, as we keep seeing more and more natural and artificial sugar alternatives out there!


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