In Australia, food manufacturers have to tell us how much sugar is in a food. You’ll find this in the Nutrition Information Panel on the back of the pack. But we can’t tell how much of that sugar is naturally occurring in wholefood ingredients and how much is added sugar.
We want any sugar in our food to be naturally found in wholefood ingredients (which come packaged nicely in small amounts with other nutrients) and not isolated sugars added by the manufacturer. If you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake or are just interested in choosing healthy options, read on to find out how to find added sugars hiding in your grocery favourites.
What’s the difference between natural and added sugars?
While all sugars still have natural origins, the difference is if they are isolated from their natural source or not.
A piece of fruit (fresh or dried) is a complete package. It contains sugar (fructose) but also vitamins, minerals and fibre. So for a little sweetness you get a decent amount of vitamins too. Milk is also a source of sugar (lactose) and it comes with minerals. So seeing some sugar on a Nutrition Information Panel doesn’t always mean sugar has been added.
You might have heard added sugars also called free sugars. These include all crystal sugars (like raw cane sugar and coconut sugar), syrups (like honey and agave) and fruit juices.
Whats the problem with added sugars?
Our daily limit of free or added sugars is 6 teaspoons.
Most Australians are consuming WAY more than this. The ABS worked out that in 2011-12 we had an average of 60 g of added sugars a day – that’s 14 teaspoons! Our biggest sugar addicts are teenage boys who were having an average of 92 g a day. It’s not just soft drinks and coco pops though, free sugars are added to a lot of different packaged foods even ones marketed as healthy natural options.
Too many added sugars can lead to health problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay. If you’re regularly having too much, you’re more likely to struggle with your weight. Kids who are filling up on sugary discretionary choices will also be missing out on the nutrition from healthier wholefoods.
Our preference for healthy foods has led to products being marketed as healthy but are really just hiding the sugars.
Look out for products that have multiple types of sugars in the one product or that are using trendy alternatives with an on trend health halo (like rice syrup or coconut sugar). All sugar comes from plants – but these alternatives to cane sugar are still just sugar and we need to cut down on all of them.
So here are my label reading tips to help you spot hidden sugars.
How do you spot added sugars?
Any food with fruit or milk in it is going to need investigation beyond the Nutrition Information Panel. So you need to check out the ingredients list. It’s tiny and probably the last thing you will notice on the pack. Only added sugars are listed in the ingredients list. Sugars that are naturally occurring in wholefood ingredients won’t be mentioned, you’ll just see the food (eg. sultanas).
The ingredients list is ordered from most to least. We want to see good wholefoods at the beginning and any added sugars, salt or flavourings at the end (or not at all). Added fats, sugars or salts anywhere in the top 3 ingredients is a nutrition red flag.
If the fruit (or milk) is before the added sugars, that’s a good thing. It’s telling us that most of the sugars in the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) are natural sugars. We still don’t know how much are added though, so you’ll need to use the rest of the tips here to decide if a product is a good choice or not.
Here’s a list of common ingredients used in Australian food products that are all just added sugars. No one is better than another. Sugar is sugar.
Often manufacturers will use a few different types of sugar which get separated and end up further down the ingredients list.
We see this a lot in breakfast cereals. Check out these Uncle Toby’s Flavoured Oat sachets. As it’s a variety box, the NIP is an average across all 3 flavours. Any of your variety packs of different foods will use an average. But they have to provide flavour specific ingredients lists. Have a look at the Golden Syrup flavour. It has sugar and golden syrup and maltodextrin and glucose. So it’s probably going to be higher than the 23.2 g per 100 g average provided in the Nutrition Information Panel.
This strawberry flavoured pouch yoghurt shows us why it’s important to check if sugar or fruit comes first on the ingredients list. Most of that sugar (12.6 g per 100 g) is actually coming from added sugar, not strawberry. So this isn’t a good choice for the kids.
This fruit and nut muesli is not a good choice either. It’s got 20 g of sugar per 100 g but that’s mostly added sugar not dried fruit as you would expect. The second ingredient is sugar. AND there are different types of sugar used.
Have a look in your kitchen as your usual breakfast cereals and yoghurts and see if there are any hidden sugars where you weren’t expecting.
Share any surprises in the comments.
Sarah Moore is a Registered Nutritionist in Perth, Western Australia. She offers group education sessions and private consultations which include guided grocery shops and kitchen clear-outs. She specialises in weight loss, family nutrition and switching to a whole foods approach.