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Sense about sugar – on labels at least

Sense about sugar - on labels at least

Have you ever been confused trying to figure out exactly how much sugar is in a food? Ingredients lists can help, but they don’t give amounts. Nutrition labels give a total sugar amount, but this is not always helpful. What if the food contains natural sugars from dairy, grains or fruit? Most of the time – even for nutritionists like ours with special analysis software – we can only make an educated guess on how much of the sugar in a packaged food is added, and how much is intrinsic.

In the US, this problem is about to be solved.  The FDA has announced some changes to the way nutrition information is to be displayed on food labels, and one of them is how sugar is to be listed. On the new American food labels, added sugars will be required to be stated separately.

That means consumers there will be able to immediately tell how much added sugar is in a food, and they’ll be able to see what percentage of their daily energy is coming from that sugar. On some foods, like sugary drinks, where all the sugar is added, it will be nothing new. But on others – where there are natural and added sugars in the food from multiple sources – this will be really very useful. It will make it easy for people to see how much of their daily limit for added sugar they’re getting. Remember added sugars are the ones we need to watch; the World Health Organisation says we should get no more than 10% of our daily energy from these. That equates to about 12 teaspoons; although they further recommend that half of that – roughly 6 teaspoons – would provide additional health benefits. (All of our menu plans in HFG are below this level).

Wouldn’t it be great to see this labelling initiative adopted here? It would give us much more clarity about the sugars we should be trying to limit in our diets. It would unmask manufacturers when they use tricky language like ‘no refined sugar’ or ‘no added sugar’ on their packaging. I see this frequently and nine times out of ten, when you look at the ingredients list it will include something that the WHO would classify as added sugar: syrup, honey, fruit juice concentrate, coconut sugar, rice malt syrup.

Reading labels is hard work. Even so, over 70% of HFG readers say they do it. So clearly, we are interested in what is in our food, and how it shapes up nutritionally. There’s a lot more that could be done to make labels easier to understand. But this would be one step in that direction. Here’s hoping we see it here soon.

First published: Jun 2016

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