Should I avoid everything which contains sugar? Food labels can be confusing, especially when it comes to working out what really is sugar-free. Accredited Practising Dietitian Ashleigh Jones explains how to read labels like a pro and how to spot added sugar.
The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) is a useful way to compare foods. Every NIP includes two columns – “per serve” and “per 100g”. Use the “per 100g” column to compare two of the same type of product, e.g. two different varieties of yoghurt. The NIP shows you the nutrient composition of a product, including energy, protein, carbohydrate, fat and sodium. Some NIPs will also include fibre and other nutrients. The NIP also includes “total sugar”. This can be a useful way for you to compare two types of breakfast cereal. But it doesn’t tell you how much added sugar a product contains. Products that include fruit and dairy will always be higher in total sugar because they contain naturally-occurring sugars. These are different from added sugar, which we need to minimise to stay healthy.
If you want to know how much added sugar a product contains, you will need to look at its ingredients list. Ingredients are always listed from highest percentage to lowest. So, if sugar is listed towards the start of the list, you know the product contains a large amount of added sugar. However, if sugar appears towards the end of the list, you know the product contains very little added sugar.
If you looked at the NIP for an apple, you will see that it contains around 15g of sugar per serving. This might sound like a lot of sugar – 3 teaspoons! – But apples do not contain any added sugar. But, if you only looked at the NIP, you might find yourself thinking you need to avoid this very healthy food, which is full of vitamins, minerals and fibre. On the other hand, if you looked at the ingredients list for an apple, you would see that it doesn’t contain any added sugar – the only ingredient is an apple! Ingredient lists are essential in figuring out how much added sugar is in food and whether it’s from natural sources such as fruit and dairy.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as looking for the word “sugar” on an ingredients list, the list can go on! Here are some other words that might be used to describe sugar on an ingredients list: agave nectar, anhydrous dextrose, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, coconut sugar, corn syrup, demerara sugar, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, fructose, golden syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, muscovado sugar, nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar), palm sugar, rapadura sugar, raw sugar, rice malt syrup, sucrose, treacle. Make sure you keep an eye out for these sugar alternatives.
The short answer is no! Not all foods that contain sugar are unhealthy (and not all sugar-free foods are healthy!). NIPs are useful to compare the total amount of sugar content between similar products. It is also important to note how high sugar appears on the ingredients list and whether the food offers any other nutritional benefits. For example, whole grain bread is very nutritious as it contains low GI carbohydrates, fibre, protein and a range of vitamins and minerals. But it doesn’t taste very good on its own. While jam and honey are sources of added sugar, using a small amount (i.e. one teaspoon or less) can make healthy foods even more delicious. It’s a great way to ensure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet without consuming too much added sugar.