Not so long ago, when I thought about how to read food labels for sugar I was left was confused and shocked at how cryptic it seemed to be. It was kind of annoying that it seemed like such a chore to have to try and interpret these food labels just so I could work out if I should buy the product in the first place.
I questioned was reading food labels really necessary in the grand scheme of things, and couldn’t we just trust what it said on the front of the sauce bottle, or the box, rather than having to turn it over and analyse what it said on the back.
Oh how the marketing companies would just love that!
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Since those early days, I have learnt that this could be dangerous territory, and that this type of thinking could lead me down a path of weight gain, illness, and a serious sugar addiction that I would struggle to dig myself out of.
It’s true, learning to work out what is sugar and what is not on food labels can be tricky, but it can be done even when you don’t have any special scientific skills, or are slightly lacking in the math whizz department.
How To Read Food labels for Sugar
There are a couple of key guidelines and once you know them and apply them to what you eat and how you shop, you will start to realise just how much sugar there is in E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. It’s in things you wouldn’t even think had a lot of added sugars, and maybe things you’ve been using for years which have been a contributing factor to weight gain and a feeling of less than average.
These couple of guidelines are powerful. They have changed the way I shop and what we eat in our household. They have changed the way I think about food and how I choose to eat.
Added sugars are hard to escape. But you can be aware. Aware of what is going on with sugar and where it’s hidden in your food. It’s about increasing awareness and arming ourselves with information to make better choices that don’t weigh us down, but instead provide better nutritional value to energize our mind and fuel our bodies.
But first, let’s get clued up on good v bad sugar.
Good Versus Bad Sugars
- These are found in fruits and vegetables, dairy and wholegrains
- They are absorbed slowly into the system over a period of time (sugar high avoided!)
- Good sugars are loaded with additional vitamins and nutrients
- Good sugars can be converted into energy
- Good sugars help support your body to function and be active
On the other hand, Bad Sugars:
- Bad sugars live in processed foods like white bread, pastas, cakes, and soft drinks
- Bad sugars are absorbed quickly into the system (hello sugar high!!)
- Bad sugars are high in calories and have limited nutritional impact
- Bad sugars don’t fill you up
- Bad sugars increase cravings
- Bad sugars can cause health problems, like type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay
Basically sugar is a carbohydrate that is found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, but is also added to many foods and eating too much of it can definitely lead to unwanted weight gain and tooth decay.
How Much sugar should you be eating?
The 2011-12 Australian Health Survey uncovered that on average each day Australians are consuming 14 teaspoons of added sugar per day. This is equivalent to 60 grams of sugar per day. Americans consume even more added sugars at 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) every day.
What are Added Sugars?
Of all the sugars we eat, so much are from processed foods with fizzy drinks, cakes, lollies and sports drinks being some of the main culprits
Remember that guideline I was taking about earlier? Here it is and its really important as it will be used to calculate how many teaspoons of added sugar a product actually contains, as well as the recommended added sugar intake per day based on how much you are eating.
1 teaspoon of sugar is approximately 4 grams
The World Health Organisation recommends no more than 10% of your daily food intake (ie: calories) should be made up of added sugars.
What does this look like in real terms? For a 2,000-calorie diet, 10% would be 50 grams, or 12.5 teaspoons of added sugar per day.
How to calculate 10% of Daily Calories
2000 calories x 10% = 200 calories of added sugar per day
200 divide by 4 to get the grams of sugar that it translates to = 50 grams of sugar
50 divide by 4 again to get the number of teaspoons it translates to = 12.5 teaspoons
If you’re consuming around 1500 calories per day, 10% would be
1500 x 10% = 150 calories of added sugar per day
150/4 = 37.5 grams of sugar
To translate 37 grams of sugar into teaspoons, divide by 4, which equals 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day max.
So when you look at a nutrition label and see that is has 32grams of sugar per serve, if you divide that number by 4, it means it has 8 teaspoons of sugar. That would definitely be considered a high sugar product and probably one to avoid.
Generally anything over 5grams or ml of sugar (either per serving or per 100) is considered to be “added” as opposed to naturally occurring.
If you’re not sure how many calories you’re consuming, check out myfitness pal. It will help you to track your calorie intake. Input your food for 1 week to get and average of how many calories you are eating. The calculate your percentage sugar intake off that.
3 Simple Steps For Understanding Food Labels
- Get familiar with the different names for sugar. It comes in all forms and guises! Here are some names for sugar commonly found on food labels
- Fructose, Glucose, Sucrose, Maltose, Agave nectar, beet sugar, brown sugar, confectioners sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, corn sweetener, date sugar, demerara sugar, dextrose, fructose, fruit syrup, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, icing sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, muscovado sugar, raw sugar, rice syrup, sucrose.
- Read the ingredients list and find where sugar is listed.
- Is it the first or second ingredient listed? This means that sugar is a major component as ingredients on the back of a label are usually listed in the order of how much is used in the product.
- It’s also not uncommon for a product to have multiple sugars which might be further down the list
- Lots of ingredients = a highly processed product
- Remember the ingredients list might not specifically list “sugar”, but it might list one of the other names for sugar instead as per point number 1.
- On the label check the sugars in the nutrition panel.
- 5g/ml or less of sugar per 100g/ml = this would count as low sugar content. It means 5% of the ingredients are sugar
- Between 5g/ml and 20g/ml of sugar per 100 grams = medium sugar content. With 20ml of sugar per 100 ml, this means the product is 20% sugar…not so good.
- Over 20g of sugar per 100g/ml = high sugar content. This means if a product has for example, 35g sugar per 100 ml that one third of it is sugar. That is really, really not good.
Nutrition Panels and Sugar Per Serving Sizes
Say you’re looking at a bottle of Orange Juice and the serving size says 200 ml, and there is 20 ml of sugar listed, you might think that this is no too bad. But here’s the thing. Are you really going to have 200 ml of juice? If you’re like most people you’re probably going to have double that.
So that would be 400ml of juice with 40ml of sugar, or 10 teaspoons of sugar in just one drink, very close to your entire recommended daily sugar intake.
Another big one is BBQ sauce. One bottle I looked at stated a serving size of 15ml, about 3 to 4 teaspoons of sauce. Of this 8.1ml was sugar. So basically its about 50% sugar.
Just to look at it another way, 100 ml of the same BBQ sauce stated that 54ml was sugar. Yep. Over half of that sauce is sugar. No wonder we love it so much and can’t stop eating it. The added sugar has caused us to be addicted to it!
Something I don't like admitting to is that when I used to eat store bought BBQ sauce, I wouldn't just stick to the recommended serving size. I usually had double or triple that. Maybe you can relate.
Sugar in Dairy Products
Generally speaking, regular milk and plain yoghurt don’t contain added sugars, but contain lactose – a naturally occurring sweetener. However if you’re buying the flavoured varieties that most certainly will contain added sugars. So whilst added sugars will contribute to increased calories in a product, the natural sugars in dairy are part of the nutritional value which is a good thing providing calcium and other valuable nutrients that our body needs.
Sugar and Your Weekly Shop
So, what happens if you’re at the supermarket and you’re reaching out for an ingredient for that dish you’ve been planning all week?
- Check the label for sugar content per serving. Practice the 4 grams equals 1 teaspoon rule.
- Be especially suspect about things like tomato and BBQ sauces and salad dressings, muesli bars, baked beans, cereals, tinned soups, pasta sauces, and of course bakery items
- Does the item contain 1 teaspoon of sugar, 2, 3, 4, or 10 teaspoons of sugar per serve? Do the simple calculation of dividing the sugar number by 4. That's your number of teaspoons.
- Decide. Are you going to buy it. Or are you going to put it back on the shelf and look for something else?
For alternatives, check out my savvy sugar swaps to see how you can cut sugar simply by making the switch to healthier alternatives!