The Bitter Facts About Hidden Sugar in Food

You know food labels are there, but when was the last time you actually read the label on your favorite snack or beverage? The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires nutrition labeling for prepared and processed foods and drinks. The purpose of food labels is to communicate nutrition information to consumers about the contents of a food or beverage. Unfortunately, research examining consumer practices and attitudes toward food labels consistently demonstrate that food labels are underutilized and poorly understood. Skipping this important step can be detrimental to your health.

To help you learn to effectively read food labels and make informed decisions, we have crafted this easy to follow visual guide to help demonstrate how one of the most commonly encountered food additives hides in plain sight in so many different types of foods and beverages - Sugar!

Sugar in the Spotlight

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that added sugar intake by children and adults should not exceed 10% of total calories, although they go further and recommend that “a reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (~ 6 teaspoons) would provide additional health benefits” to lessen the risk of developing obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and other chronic health conditions.

The FDA similarly recommends that daily sugar intake not exceed 10% of total calories for a 2000 calorie diet, which is equivalent to 50 grams per day or roughly 12.5 teaspoons. It can be argued that there are flaws with the 10% threshold for sugar intake, but that issue will be addressed in another blog covering macronutrient ratios.

The FDA and WHO define “free sugar” as sugar added to food and drinks, which can appear as any of the following representations on a nutrition label:

1. Syrup in the name - high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup or agave syrup.

2. Sugar is in the name – turbinado sugar, cane sugar, raw sugar or brown sugar.

3. The name ends in -ose – dextrose, maltose, sucrose, glucose, galactose, maltose, tehalose or lactose.

4. Other Names - corn sweetener, molasses, honey and many more.

While sugar that is naturally found in whole fruits and vegetables are not included in these recommendations, it is important to avoid excessive intake of naturally occurring fruit sugar, particularly with fresh smoothie and juicing practices where labels may not be readily available.

Nutrition Facts

The Nutrition facts label provides much of the technical information about the food in the package or bottle. At the top of the label is the serving size and servings per container. The serving size is often listed in both English and international units (SI), for example cups and grams, respectively. The serving size is based upon typical amounts of food consumed in a meal or snack, rather than being an explicit recommendation of how much of that food you should be consuming.

With English units being historical standard of measurement in the US, most people are likely able to visualize what a teaspoon (tsp) or an ounce (oz) of a common food or beverage looks like, but what about when the unit of measure is provided in milligrams (mg) or grams (g)? Understanding how English units compare to international units for common food ingredients like sugar can help consumers understand how to more effectively read food labels and minimize the risks of over consumption.

For example, a typical 20 oz non-diet soda can contain up to 65 grams (g) of sugar. A standard packet of table sugar is approximately equivalent to a teaspoon (4 g), so consuming a 20 oz soda with 65 g of sugar is roughly equivalent to consuming 16 packs of sugar and 240 calories. This means that in one, average sized beverage sold in the US you can surpass your daily recommended sugar intake which is less than 50 g per day!

Other Examples of Common Foods with Hidden Sugar

Sugar sweetened beverages contains sugar in plain sight and most people are aware that they contain sugar, but what about other sources of sugar that may not be as obvious? Below are a list of common food items with high levels of hidden sugar.

1. Breakfast Bars – Up to 20 grams per bar.

2. Spaghetti Sauce – Up to 15 grams per cup of sauce.

3. Barbecue Sauce and Ketchup – 6 grams of sugar per tablespoon.

4. Breakfast Cereal – Up to 25 grams per cup of cereal.

5. Yogurt – Up to 20 grams per in one cup.

Bonus: Iced Coffee Drinks – Up to 50 grams in a 12 oz cup. Iced coffee was included because it is popular and its excessive sugar may be masked by the bitterness of the coffee.

Serving Size

Occasionally there will be multiple servings listed on food and beverage containers, which may be a source of confusion when attempting to read the nutrition label. If you plan to consume all of the food or beverage contained in the container or bottle then you must multiply the number of servings by the amount of sugar per serving to get an accurate representation of the total amount of added sugar that you are consuming. The example nutrition label on the left contains 16 servings x 24 g of sugar per serving for a total of 384 g of added sugar in the package!

Daily Value

The percent Daily Value (DV) is a representation of the maximum recommended amount to be consumed in a day based upon a 2,000 calorie diet. If you are consuming more or less calories than 2,000, then the percentage for each component can be used as a multiplier for adjusting the amount of that component based upon your unique caloric needs. It is important to remember that most Americans exceed the recommended daily intake for added sugar in the diet and much of this extra sugar is hidden. Reading labels can go a long ways towards helping you maintain your added sugar intake at or below the recommended daily intake, which in turn will help you lower your long term risk of many diseases. Other important data included on the Nutrition Facts label – calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein and nutrients – will be covered in future blogs, so stay tuned!

Important points to remember when selecting foods and reading labels for sugar:

1. Sugar by any other name is still sugar.

2. Focus on whole foods such as vegetables and fruits rather than processed foods.

3. If you are consuming processed foods (canned, bottled, packaged) read labels carefully to minimize excess sugar intake.

4. No added sweeteners is better than > non-caloric sweeteners which is better than > natural sweeteners which is better than > refined sugar, which you should try to minimize for your health!

For more information on how sugar may be impacting your particular health and how to modify your patterns of eating for optimal health and wellness click the ICNS logo below.

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