The number of food additives and preservatives (as well as natural ingredients) is huge, and it’s not surprising that reading labels and understanding their content has become a challenge. However, it’s worth knowing some general rules in order to avoid buying too many processed and low-value products.
Nowadays, sugar is present not only in sweet foods like cakes or candies—it is also added to spicy sauces and meats, as it adds flavor and moisture and also acts as preservative. More about added sugar in our diet can be found here. It seems that we should avoid any foods that contain added sugar. To do so, we need to know where the sugars are hidden.
There are two types of sugars present in foods—natural ones and added. Natural ones are present in the products produced using either fruit or milk. Otherwise, the sugars in the nutrition facts table will be coming from added sugars only, such as sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, etc. (the list is below).
How to read the labels?
Any product you buy will have two types of information: the ingredients list and the nutrition facts table.
First, you should read the ingredients list to know what was used to produce it.
While reading the ingredients list, remember that all ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so those that weigh the most will be listed first. If any sugars were added to the product, they must be listed. The ingredients must be listed by their common or usual name, so sugar will mean table sugar, liquid sugar, invert sugar, or sucrose. If the product has sugar mentioned as one of the first three ingredients, it means that it is processed and modified food—better not to eat it if you want to keep healthy and fit.
There might be more than one type of sugar—e.g. honey, invert sugar, and maple syrup, all of them in small quantities, so appearing in much further positions of the list. However, when they add up, it may be a considerable amount, so do the math.
Sometimes producers will add more “healthy” sweet choices such as honey or organic cane juice. These are all sugars, so be careful.
Another way to pack the product with sugar and keep it more appealing is by using the adjective “natural.” Natural sugar simply means sugar as it is derived from its natural source: sugar cane or beet root. However, it does not change the fact that it is still sugar.
Here is the list of many sweet ingredients that may appear in the ingredients list:
The above list includes natural sugars, natural sweeteners, modified sugars, and complex sugars. Additionally, the product may contain artificial sweeteners, so called non-nutritive sweeteners.
The next step is to read the nutrition facts table.
The nutrition facts table gives you information on serving size, amount of nutrients in the food, and how much nutrient is provided in comparison to your daily need (which is given as a percentage).
In the nutrition facts table, natural and added sugars are given as a sum. There is no distinguishing between those two types. If the product is produced from fruit or milk, it will have natural sugar, but if there was any sugar added (possibly in the form of high fructose corn syrup), all sugars will be added up and given as one number. It is very difficult to tell how much added sugar the product has.
In the example below, the fruit cocktail is made of fruit, so the sugars in the nutrition facts table will come from fruit. However, there is also added sugar such as glucose-fructose (by the way, glucose-fructose is just sucrose—in other words, table sugar). The amount of sugars given in the nutrition facts table, which is 30g, is a sum of both sugars originating from concentrated fruit juices and the glucose-fructose.
As mentioned before, the ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, so in the above label, we can see that there is more glucose-fructose than concentrated fruit juice, which makes this drink more a soda than a fruit drink.
How to interpret the amounts?
It is good to follow these simple rules while referring to the labels:
- If the product has more than 22.5g of total sugar per 100g serving size, it’s considered high sugar level.
- If the product has between 5g and 22.5g of total sugar per 100g serving size, it’s considered medium sugar level.
- If the product has 5g or less of total sugar per 100g serving size, it’s considered low sugar level.
- Products with medium and high sugar levels should be eaten sparingly.
Different terms that you may find on the products that refer to sugar content:
|Sugar-free / Free of sugarNo sugar / 0 sugar / zero sugarWithout sugar / contains no sugarSugarless||The product contains less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving.|
|Reduced in sugar / reduced sugarSugar-reduced / less sugarLower sugar / lower in sugar||The product has at least 25% less sugars per serving if compared to not modified product with the same serving size.|
|No added sugar / no sugar addedWithout added sugar||The product has neither added sugar nor ingredients containing added sugars.|
|unsweetened||Same as “no added sugar” category and contains no sweeteners|
|Low in sugar||Not defined or allowed as a claim on food labels|
|Light||Not defined or allowed as a claim on food labels|
|Low carbohydrate||Not defined or allowed as a claim on food labels|
|Carbohydrate-reduced||Not defined or allowed as a claim on food labels|
|Source of complex carbohydrate||Not defined or allowed as a claim on food labels|
General information on labels
% Daily Value
Daily Reference Values (DRVs) are established for adults and children four or more years of age, as are RDIs, with the exception of protein. DRVs are provided for total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sodium, potassium, and protein.
Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs) are provided for vitamins and minerals and for protein for children less than four years of age, and for pregnant and lactating women.
However, in order to limit consumer confusion, the label includes a single term (i.e., Daily Value or DV) to designate both the DRVs and the RDIs. Specifically, the label includes the % DV, except that the % DV for protein is not required unless a protein claim is made for the product or if the product is to be used by infants or children under four years of age.
The US FDA gives the daily values for adults and children four or more years of age based on a 2,000-calorie diet. However, the list does not include sugars—only carbohydrates and fiber.
|Food Component||% DV|
|Total Carbohydrate||300 g|
|Dietary Fiber||25 g|
As we wrote it earlier here the amount of sugar should be no more than 25g.
When may a “high” or “good source” claim be made?
A “good source” claim may be made when a food contains 10-19% of the % Daily Value (% DV).
A “high” claim may be made when a food contains at least 20% of the % DV.