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The Sweet Deception: How Nutrition Labels Hide Added Sugar in Plain Sight

The Sweet Deception: How Nutrition Labels Hide Added Sugar in Plain Sight

In our latest conversation with Cynthia Sass (MPH, MA, RD, CSSD), Upgraid's nutrition consultant weighs in on just how important it is to know how to read your food’s nutrition labels to avoid getting a massive dose of sugar when you’re not even expecting it.

Upgraid: How can the Nutrition Facts label help shoppers identify added sugar? 

Cynthia Sass: Newly revised Nutrition Facts labels mandated by the Food and Drug Administration now list the added sugar content of a packaged food in grams. (Note: smaller food companies have until 2021 to adopt the new labels, but most brands have already switched to this amended version) This important change separates added sugar, the kind added to a food by the manufacturer, from naturally occurring sugar, the kind built-in by Mother Nature, such as the sugar in fresh fruit. 

Upgraid: Why is this label change so important?

Cynthia Sass: Previously, the grams of added sugar and naturally occurring sugar found in a food were combined. This made it difficult for a shopper to differentiate between the two types. For example, the label on peaches canned in syrup wouldn’t indicate how much sugar comes from the fruit itself, versus how much comes from the sweetener. The division is vital, because added sugar is the specific type that should be limited on a daily basis, in order to reduce health risks.

When you diligently read Nutrition Facts labels, you’ll notice just how many unexpected foods contain added sugar. Common sources include salad dressing, soup, condiments, crackers, bread, tomato sauce, and even sushi.

Upgraid: Where is the added sugar information found?

Cynthia Sass: The grams of added sugar in a food are found within the carbohydrate section of the Nutrition Facts label, as part of the total sugar content. For example, an energy bar made with oats, fruit, and an added sweetener like honey may contain 28 grams of total carbohydrate, with 10 of those total carb grams coming from total sugar, and eight of those total sugar grams coming from added sugar. In comparison, a bar made with dates may contain 23 grams of total carbohydrate, with 17 of those grams coming from total sugar, and 0 of those grams coming from added sugar. The latter indicates that all of the sugar in the bar comes from the dates, which is not considered to be a form of added sugar, since it’s a whole fruit. 

Upgraid: How much added sugar per day is OK?

Cynthia Sass: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women limit added sugar consumption to no more than six teaspoons worth per day, and men no more than nine teaspoons worth daily. Every four grams of added sugar equals a teaspoon. So if a Nutrition Facts label lists 12 grams of added sugar in one serving, the product contains three teaspoons worth. When you start to add up the teaspoons worth of added sugar in foods you eat daily, you’ll begin to see how close you are to the AHA’s recommended cap.

Upgraid: Are there any tips or tricks shoppers can use to take advantage of the added sugar information? 

Cynthia Sass: The added sugar gram content is particularly helpful for comparing similar foods to each other, such as two types of cereal, or various brands of sweetened plant milk. A shopper can quickly see how much added sugar one product contains per serving as opposed to a similar counterpart. This is incredibly helpful, since added sugar content can vary widely. For example, one type of almond milk may contain 13 grams of added sugar per cup (over three teaspoons worth), while another may provide just five grams (just over one teaspoon worth) per cup.

Just be sure to look at the serving size. If the serving size listed is eight ounces of a beverage and you drink 16 ounces, you’ll need to multiply the grams of added sugar by two.  

Please keep in mind that even the strictest guidelines on sugar do not recommend cutting out naturally occurring sugar, so don’t count all sugar towards the daily limit. Nutrient rich whole fruit and foods like sweet potato and carrots don’t deserve to be lumped in with soda, candy, and baked goods. 

To learn more about Cynthia Sass, please visit her website and her Instagram page.

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