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What food labels don't tell you about sugar

Good Housekeeping UK logo Good Housekeeping UK 03/10/2018 Emilie Martin
© Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

The current food labelling system should be reviewed to make it easier for shoppers to choose lower sugar foods and drinks, health charity Action on Sugar has said.

The call comes as research that shows less than one in 10 yoghurts on sale in UK supermarkets (and one in 50 children’s yoghurts) would qualify as ‘low sugar’ – something that might surprise many shoppers buying yogurts as a healthy dessert.

With confusion surrounding food labels, you’ll need to do a bit of detective work if you want to work out the amount of sugar in your favourite foods. But is it all bad for you? Here’s what you need to know.

How can I tell if sugar has been added?

Head straight for the ingredients list to find out. This details all the ingredients used to make a product in order of weight, starting with the main ingredient. If sugar doesn’t appear in the ingredients list, then no sugar has been added.

Bear in mind though that added sugar could be listed under other names such as glucose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup or hydrolysed starch. So called ‘health foods’ can also be laden with sugar in the form of agave nectar, honey, organic cane sugar and maple syrup.

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How do I see exactly how much sugar food contains?

The nutrition label on packets and cartons tells you how much sugar there is in a food or drink, alongside other things such as its caloric value and the amount of fat. Look for the ‘carbohydrates (of which sugars)’ figure to see how many grams of sugar per 100g or 100ml there are. 

Watch: "What is sugar tax" [The Independent]

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Why does it tell me there’s sugar on the nutritional label if it’s not in the ingredients list?

This is where confusion over sugar labelling stems from. Nutritional labels tell you the total amount of sugar in a food, including naturally occurring sugars, such as fructose (found in fruit and vegetables) and lactose (found in milk and milk products), as well as sugar that has been added by the manufacturer. So something that is free from added sugars can still contain naturally occurring sugars.

What’s the difference between added and natural sugars?

Natural sugars, for example in a banana, have a less drastic effect on blood sugar levels as they are usually found alongside fibre and help to satisfy hunger.

a hand holding an apple: Woman peeling off bananafor healthy eating. © mikroman6 - Getty Images Woman peeling off bananafor healthy eating.

While we should limit added sugars (also called ‘free sugars’), we shouldn’t cut out naturally occurring sugars from our diet. Kawther Hashem, a nutritionist and researcher at Action on Sugar explains: ‘Consumers should not be worried about lactose in dairy products and fructose in whole fruit and vegetables – they would not count towards your maximum daily allowance of 30g free sugars.’

How I decide what’s low sugar?

Even though the total sugar figure only tells us half the story, it’s the quickest way to judge whether a product has a high or low sugar content. More than 22.5g sugar per 100g or 100ml is classified as high, while 5g or less is low. The traffic light system used on the front of some packs to colour-code high, low- and medium-sugar foods, can help highlight this more clearly.

a close up of food: Packet Rice UK Traffic Light Food Labelling Guidelines © HotHibiscus Packet Rice UK Traffic Light Food Labelling Guidelines

How do portion sizes work?

Some food companies choose also to include the amount of sugar per portion on packaging, which can make filling your shopping trolley with low-sugar foods easier. But beware that some portion sizes are easier to understand than others. A one biscuit portion is straightforward to work out, but would you know what a 35g serving of cereal looked like?

To make it easier to work out if a food or drink has a high or a low sugar content, try using the FoodSwitch app. Scan the barcode of a product with your phone and the app will tell you whether it is red (high-sugar), amber (medium-sugar content) or green (low sugar). It will also suggest a lower-sugar alternative to higher sugar products.

Where does the sugar tax come in?
If your favourite fizzy drink has gone up in price, you can blame the sugar tax, that was introduced earlier this year. Drinks containing a total sugar content above 5g per 100 millilitres are taxed at 18p per litre and drinks containing a total sugar content above 8g per 100 millilitres are taxed at 24p. However, this doesn't apply to fruit based and milk based drinks, so naturally sugary drinks aren't part of the tax. 

Watch: Stokes-Lampard: Sugar tax is step in the right direction [ITN News]

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