Becoming a sugar-savvy consumer. How to navigate food labels for sugar traps

“Sugar-free”, “fat-free”, “light” – we see these labels plastered all across packaging as we browse the supermarket aisles. With a growing trend toward ‘clean’ and conscious eating, the marketing tricks brands employ to attract consumers to their “healthy” products have become both deceiving and entirely confusing for the majority of us.

Spotlight on sugar

At the forefront of the growing health-craze is a spotlight on sugar and the role it plays in our diets. Indeed, the sugar content of the foods we choose has become increasingly important for many of us to consider –with sugar being implicated in a range of health issues from heart disease to Type 2 Diabetes1.

To offset the risk of these diet-induced afflictions, making informed choices to reduce our daily sugar-intake has become a valuable health investment. The problem is, all this hype around sugar has manifested itself into some of the most misleading and ambiguous food claims out there, so making informed choices is becoming increasingly difficult when it comes to sugar consumption.

Sugar in disguise

Sugar has over 60 various names (refer to Figure 1) and current labelling laws in Australia don’t require food manufacturers to differentiate between sugars that have been added by the manufacturer (e.g. syrups) to those sugars that are naturally intrinsic to the food (e.g. lactose in milk). As a result, sugar can often be ‘hidden’ unrecognizably through the use of these obscure synonyms, or its’ content highly downplayed by clever nutritional labelling and wording.

Fig 1: 60 different names for sugar. Image source:   thatsugarfilm.com

Loopholes in product-labelling and claims declaring ‘no added sugar’ or ‘all natural’ have made products we would otherwise be wary of appear to be suitably healthy options for us. This means that despite added sugar hiding in 74%* of packaged goods – we’re being fooled into thinking we’re making a healthy option when we pick up a sugar bomb.

For example, a bottled fruit juice or snack bar declaring ‘no added sugar’ on its label simply means that when the product was being made, no sugars are added to those which naturally occur in the product’s – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is low in sugar or that it’s a healthy choice (See Figure 2).

Alternatively, an ‘all natural, ‘raw’ health bar’ containing no obvious signs of sugar on its’ ingredient panel may be harboring a host of non-obvious sugars from the dried fruits they contain. Dates are a main culprit here and raw food bars can have up to 40% naturally occurring sugars just from this one main ingredient. Sure, dried fruit and dates may not need to be labeled as added sugar, but since they are super dense in sugars (60%), you can very easily go over your daily sugar allowance thanks to one small protein ball or raw bar. Without checking the nutrition panel on the back of the packet, you could easily think it was a low sugar product due to the ‘no added sugar’ claims plastered on the front.

Fig 2: Hidden sugar in “healthy snack” bar. Image source:  thatsugarfilm.com

Two products marketed as similar options can also be vastly different in their nutritional composition – meaning that most products cannot be taken at face-value or categorised simply into “unhealthy” or “healthy” options. For example, a cafe-style Double Chocolate Chip muffin in your supermarket may be harbouring up to 30-40g of sugar per serve – making it tempting for us to classify all muffins as “high-sugar” or ‘bad’ options. However, as shown in Figure 3, healthier options (like our Noshu muffins!) DO often exist for many of our favourite snacks and treats – you just have to know which ones are really the best choices by becoming label-savvy.

Regular Choc Chip muffin vs. Noshu Muffin

 

Becoming label-savvy

So how can we become label-savvy when it comes to sugar and avoid these traps?

The first step is to stop making food decisions based on the claims on the front of packets. Instead, look to the nutritional panel on the back to obtain a breakdown of what you’re really putting into your body when you consume the products you choose. Search for the heading ‘Carbohydrates’ (especially if you are watching your carb intake), then go straight to the sub-heading “Sugars” under ‘Carbohydrate” as per Figure 5. The FDA (US) and FSANZ (AUS) defines the “sugar” category on a foods nutritional panel as the total amount of naturally present, as well as those sugars added during processing.

Figure 5: How To Interpret Nutritional Panels

Ideally, for processed and packaged foods you want to aim for the sugar content in the ‘per 100g’ column to be less than 5 grams per 100 grams, meaning the product has a maximum of 5% total sugar and is what we would classify as a ‘low sugar’ food.

The second step is to then determine what kinds of sugars are making up the total sugar count. To do this, look at the ingredient list, which lists all ingredients in descending order. The position of an ingredient on this list will indicate the contribution of that ingredient to the overall product. The higher up an ingredient is on the list, the more of that ingredient a product contains – so you want to avoid products that have added sugars earlier in the list than any naturally occurring sugars.

This distinction is quite important, as the naturally occurring sugars aren’t necessarily reason for concern, and contain various vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. Some examples of this are sugars in Natural / Greek/ Unsweetened yogurt which come from lactose, or sugars derived from ingredients such pumpkin, coconut or sweet potato.

Step 3 is to familiarize yourself with the numerous synonyms sugar may be listed as, including all those listed in Figure 1 – and whether they are an ‘added’ or ‘naturally occurring ‘ sugars in reasonable amounts only. This will enable you to combat another common loophole that food manufacturers use to trick consumers – using a host of different types of added sugars so that they can be used in smaller quantities during production, and hence each be listed as the eighth or ninth items on an ingredient list (see Figure 6). If you just simply look for “sugar” early on in an ingredient list, you could easily be missing the significant amounts of added sugars being listed under synonyms later on – which, when added up, constitute to make sugar the number one ingredient.

Fig 6: Sugar listed in various forms under the one ingredient listing.

 

One of the main sugar culprits we often see being disguised in this way is rice malt syrup, also called rice malt or brown rice syrup – which yes, is fructose free and doesn’t contain the word “sugar” but actually has an even higher GI (85) than dairy milk chocolate and can contribute to tooth decay and raised insulin levels! Definitely one to look out for!

And one last thing you may want to consider… if you’ve gone through Steps 1-3 for a product and are assured that it does not have added or hidden sugars, the final step is to make sure that are you happy with the substitutes or sweeteners the product contains instead of sugar.  We were recently caught out by Quest bars which never used to have sucralose as a sweetener to make up for their low-sugar formula. However, the brand has recently reformulated their recipe to include sucralose as an ingredient…which wrecks havoc on our health! So it pays to be label-savvy in more ways than one and to continuously check labels if you want to avoid nasty chemical and synthetic sweeteners which can almost be more damaging than sugar itself! (Check out this article on sweeteners here and specifically one on the dangers of sucralose here for more info.)

Take home message

Knowing what nutrition information to look for can help you make the best choice for your health and avoid unnecessary added sugars in your diet – without having to demonize and avoid sugar completely. Become aware, informed and empowered with your food choices so you don’t fall victim to the myriad of misleading marketing messages being used and the host of hidden sugars and sweeteners being tossed into your favourite snacks. Being informed about ingredients will only benefit your health and wellbeing – without the need for deprivation, confusion or worse – the onset of diet-related illness.

 

 Sources

  1. http://www.sbs.com.au/food/explainer/what-you-need-know-about-different-types-sugar
  2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/03/23/8-foods-and-drinks-that-contain-way-more-sugar-than-we-think/
  3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2016/07/06/how-to-understand-those-tricky-sugar-labels/

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