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Recognizing Sugar Content on Tricky Food Labels

glacier bay

It should be easy to determine how much sugar is in a packaged food – but it’s not! It’s very tricky because the sugar content can actually be hidden in the ingredient list on food labels. It’s the interpretation of the label that makes it so tricky.

There are three reasons for this. First of all, evaluating sugar and carbohydrate content on a food label is not as straight forward as evaluating fats and proteins. For example, the number of grams of protein, regardless of where it comes from provides everything we need to know about protein content. The fat grams listed are also easy to interpret. We get total grams of fat, grams of saturated fat, and now most labels (but not all — yet) will state the amount of trans fats as well. It’s straightforward. But for carbohydrates and sugars, it’s not so simple to interpret.

Knowing the number of grams of sugar and carbohydrates in the food does not provide us with all the information we need. Our bodies absorb and metabolize carbohydrates from different sources in very different ways; so all carbohydrates are not the same. Gram for gram, we cannot evaluate a products sugar and simple carbohydrate content. For example, 1 slice of average bread contains about 15 grams of carbohydrate, which is equal to the amount in a large apple. However, the bread carbs. are processed and turned to sugar much faster, raising blood sugar and insulin levels, and more easily turned to fat. One medium orange is also about 15 grams of carbohydrates, the same as 4 oz. of orange juice. But the OJ is so rapidly absorbed that it causes a very rapid rise in blood sugar. Also, the more fiber in the food, the slower the rise in blood sugar. So as you can see, you have to understand the type of food and how rapidly it’s turned into sugar in the bloodstream (i.e., the glycemic index of the food) to effectively evaluate the amount of carbohydrate in the food.

Secondly, food manufacturers use tricks to make it look like there is less sugar in their products than is actually the case. Laws require the ingredients to be listed on the label in order of the greatest amount to the least amount. So, if they want to avoid sugar showing up in the first 3 or 4 ingredients and making it obvious that it’s a high sugar product, they use a combination of different sugars so that none of the quantities are large enough to be listed in the first few ingredients. Pretty tricky huh? Therefore, the best way to evaluate a product is to assume if more than one sugar is listed on the label, there is more sugar in that product than the manufacturer wants you to think there is. Be very careful of this — a food item containing 10 ingredients can have as many as 5 sugars in it, which makes it essentially a sugar food. When you start looking closely at labels you will be amazed, and perhaps a little irritated.

Lastly, it’s becoming harder and harder to recognize sugar on the label. It would be easy if it just said “sugar” but of course that would be too obvious. So, food producers use many chemical names for sugars. Again, to make it a little more difficult for the average person to identify them.

Here is a list of the various names for sugar you will find on food labels:

All ingredients that end in “OSE” are chemical names for sugars – sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, galactose, dextrose, lactose, etc., All “natural sugars” like honey, fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate, cane juice, brown sugar, raw sugar, molasses, maltodextrin, turbinado, barley malt, or any malt, cane juice, sorghum, and dextrin. In addition, any “syrup”, which by definition means “a concentrated sugar solution of anything”, such as brown rice syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup or worse, high fructose corn syrup, is all sugar. Like the old Paul Simon song, there must be fifty ways to disguise the sugar.

My suggestion is to start reading food labels more carefully to be sure you know what you’re getting. And don’t be fooled by any food manufacturer who wants to sell their junk-food products through thinly veiled trickery.