A question that often comes up in the “Project: Sugar-Free” Facebook group (and that I also get asked personally): “This product says ‘Carbohydrates, 57.4 g’ and then underneath it says ‘Sugars, 2.8 g’ – so we shouldn’t eat it, right?” 

It’s important to be able to distinguish between a list of ingredients and a table of nutritional information.

Last year, I posted an entry on how to read ingredients lists and avoid unnecessary additives.

When it comes to ingredients lists, the closer an ingredient is to the beginning of a list, the more of it you’ll find in the product. The nutrition table, on the other hand, shows how much fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, and salt and so on the product contains. In Europe, these amounts are per 100g or 100ml; in the U.S., it’s a bit more complicated since manufacturers set their own “serving sizes” which can be a bit arbitrary.

Take a moment read through the ingredients before buying an item – this is how you’ll find out if the product has any added sugar. Keep in mind that sugar has many “aliases”: glucose-fructose syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, concentrated fruit juice, skimmed milk powder, maltodextrin, and polydextrose are but a few.

If you don’t see any form of sugar listed in the ingredients, but there’s still sugar in the nutrition table, it means that sugar naturally occurs in the food – for example, the starch in whole-grain noodles or the lactose in yogurt.

Interpreting the nutrition table: whole-grain spelt pasta

Let’s take a package of spelt pasta as an example: the only ingredient is spelt. As you can see, no sugar has been added to the pasta; at the same time, it contains 2.8 g sugar per 100 g. This is the starch that’s naturally found in spelt grains.

Interpreting the ingredients list and nutrition table: strawberry yogurt

Let’s have another look, this time with a package of low-fat strawberry yogurt:

Mild low-fat yogurt ingredients: mild low-fat yoghurt, 20% strawberry preparation (strawberries, sugar, strawberry juice from strawberry juice concentrate, modified starch, acidity regulator: citric acid, sodium citrate; beet juice and black carrot concentrate [for color]), sugar.

Even if you don’t read the ingredients list, though, it’s pretty clear that the product contains added sugar: 29.3 grams per cup! Many people think they’re making a healthy choice when they pick up a container of low-fat strawberry yogurt – they don’t necessarily realize it’s loaded with sugar and unnecessary additives.

I generally advise against eating low-fat foods and always choose the full-fat versions for myself. Why? When the fat is removed from a food – like milk products, for example – so is the taste! To ensure that these reduced-fat products are still palatable, “taste” must be added back in – usually in the form of sugar.

Milk products naturally contain around 4 g lactose per 100 ml or 100 g. That means that if there’s more than 4 g of sugar per 100 g or 100 ml in a dairy product, sugar has been added.

Don’t be fooled by “portion sizes”

Often, manufacturers will provide nutrition information according to “serving sizes,” which they determine themselves. Often, the manufacturer will make the size unrealistically small in order to trick the consumer into the thinking there’s less sugar in the product. For example, two cookies or ¾ of a yogurt container may be considered “one portion” – but hardly anyone eats that way! In these cases, you have to convert to find out how much sugar the actual portion (the example above shows the correct portion size!).

Don’t be confused by advertising promises

As more and more consumers make efforts to reduce their sugar consumption, the food industry is resorting to smarter methods to show us that their products are healthy. One method is “clean labeling,” where the packaging is emblazoned with reassurances that the product doesn’t contain this ingredient or that additive. So even if you see “unsweetened” or “no added sugar,” be sure to check the nutrition info and ingredients yourself!

 

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