Finding GF items with less sugar

Melinda Dennis MS, RDN, LDN
Q: When I buy packaged gluten-free cookies or other dessert items, I find they have too much sugar. How can I find gluten-free items with less sugar?


Before we start, just a quick reminder that “natural sugars” and “added sugars” are very different from one another. Natural sugars are found NATURALLY in fresh fruit, frozen fruit without added sugar and some no-sugar-added canned fruit, fresh and frozen vegetables and most canned vegetables, and plain dairy products (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese).

Common sources of ADDED sugar you will see in an ingredient list include cane juice, cane sugar, sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup and other syrups, and words ending in –ose, such as sucrose (table sugar), glucose, and maltose. Honey*, real maple syrup (not artificial) and blackstrap molasses are also added sugars but they have some healthy qualities, as well.

In addition, there are sugar alcohols (xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, etc.) which are reduced calorie sweeteners often used in place of sugar. They are found naturally in small amounts in a variety of fruits and vegetables. They are also commercially produced from sugars and starch and can be found in products labeled "sugar-free" or "no sugar added." Learn more here.

Back to your question.
Added sugars are found everywhere - in cookies, cakes, bagels, breakfast cereals, granola, salad dressings, protein powders, energy bars, drinks, drink mixes and on and on.

It’s very common to see processed gluten-free foods with more added sugar than you might prefer. Manufacturers are trying to obtain the same texture and “mouth feel” that is found in the wheat-based foods.

It’s not necessary to avoid ALL sugar but limiting added sugar is a realistic and healthy goal. Simply avoiding sugary drinks or soda, candy, and sweet desserts can make a big difference.

As of January 1, 2020, food manufacturers will be required to list the added sugars in addition to the total sugar on food labels in grams as well as in % DV (Daily Value). The Food and Drug Administration recommends aiming for less than 10% of your total daily calories from added sugars. If you consume above that amount of added sugar it is difficult to meet nutrient needs and stay within calorie limits.2,3

While avoiding excess added sugar is an important health step for everyone, it is particularly wise move for those with diabetes and weight issues.

How to Find or Make Products with Less Sugar

Read the label. Make an effort to avoid (or reduce) the added sugars when you buy processed food.

Ingredients are listed in descending order of weight in the ingredients list on the food label. Since the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, the farther down added sugars are in the list, the better off you are. Even better yet, get creative and healthy about how you sweeten your food.

Look for the total grams of sugar (which has started to include added sugars) on the Nutrition Facts label and compare products. Be sure to check the “Amount per serving” and the “Calories.”

Use pure honey* in small amounts. Honey is a food – while it is mostly sugar, it has amino acids (broken-down proteins) and can have trace minerals like zinc and selenium, depending on the area where it is harvested. It also acts like an antimicrobial and is less processed than other added sugars.

Dates are very nutritious and sweet because they are a food that contains natural sugar. They are potassium-rich and high in fiber which helps slow down the absorption of the sugar in your body. Use them sparingly to flavor hot or cold gluten-free cereals, in plain yogurt, or in baking. Avoid dates rolled in oat flour.

100% pure organic maple syrup is another healthy alternative that I like to use as a sweetener in gluten-free muffins or hot cereal.

If you eat cold cereal, avoid the ones with added sugar and add your own fresh or dried fruit (sparingly) and labeled gluten-free nuts and seeds.

Make your own gluten-free granola.

Modify recipes you find. You almost never need to add the amount of sugar that is suggested.

Consider seeing a dietitian who can review your current diet and help you make healthy choices based on your medical needs and food preferences.

*Do not give any honey to babies under the age of 1 year. Honey can cause a rare but serious gastrointestinal condition called infant botulism. (per Mayo Clinic)

  1. Sugar Alcohols. American Diabetes Association. August 2013.
  2. US. Food and Drug Administration. At A Glance. Highlights of the Final Nutrition Facts Label
  3. US. Food and Drug Administration. New and Improved Nutrition Facts Label. July 7, 2018.

Reviewed and updated October 3, 2022.

Note: This information is provided by NCA and Melinda Dennis, NCA's Senior Consulting Dietitian. This information is meant for educational purposes and is not intended to substitute for personalized medical advice or replace any medical advice provided directly to you by your health care provider. This information can be printed and used in consultation with your physician or dietitian. No liability is assumed by NCA, Ms. Dennis or her nutrition consulting service Delete the Wheat, LLC. by providing this information.

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About Melinda Dennis MS, RDN, LDN

Melinda Dennis, Senior Nutrition Consultant for NCA, is an expert celiac dietitian and and Nutrition Coordinator for the Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, MA. Diagnosed with celiac disease in 1990, she specializes in the nutritional treatment of patients with celiac disease and gluten-related disorders.

Melinda lectures internationally and has written extensively on the nutritional management of celiac disease including the award-winning book Real Life with Celiac Disease. Melinda was the original founder of NCA in 1993 and so it is only fitting that she comes back to us in this capacity. We are truly honored to have her on our team.