A recent study likening sugar to cocaine may have convinced you to cut back on the sweet stuff, but unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. Because, despite years of pressure on the FDA to split up sugar labels and make them easier for consumers to understand, nothing has changed. When you flip the box over, you still see just one number: grams of sugar. Not what kind of sugar, not whether or not it’s an artificial sweetener, and not what the source of the sugar is. And while sugar labeling remains hopeless outdated, you (the consumer) aren’t totally powerless. Here’s how to beef up on your sugar smarts.
Jennifer L. Pomeranz, JD, MPH, works with the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale–one of the top food policy centers that’s tackling the many facets of the obesity crisis. Her recent article, “The Bittersweet Truth About Sugar Labeling Regulations: They Are Achievable and Overdue,” which appeared in the American Journal of Public Health, is what got me thinking about sugar, sugar labeling, and what consumers can do. She was nice enough to chat with me (we ended up talking for kind of a long time) about how we all can limit our sugar intake, even if the labels haven’t quite caught up yet.
First, Pomeranz pointed out, sugar goes by many, many names.
“While the labeling still isn’t clear, consumers can learn the different names for sugar, and look at the ingredients lists to avoid products that are high in sugar.” Like, for example, she said with one kids’ cereal, “the four main ingredients are sugar, wheat, dextrose, and honey. So that’s three types of sugar out of four ingredients. That’s a big problem.”
Some other common names of sugars that you may not recognize include molasses, maltose, galactose, and sucrose. For a complete list, check out this helpful article from our friends at Prevention–and then compare it to what’s in your cupboards.
Second, she told me, don’t rely on the front-of-box labels and claims, which are often misleading. According to one study by the Rudd Center, parents are frequently mislead by the statements made on the front of the box, particularly with highly-processed foods, like cereals. Fortification claims like “A Good Source of Fiber” and “Made With Whole Grains” can be hard to parse out, as many of them are essentially unregulated.
“You’re not actually getting the nutritional benefit of eating healthier food. Sure, it may claim to have antioxidants because it has some blueberries, but it’s not a blueberry. So really, you’re not getting anything out of it.”
One example she gave was a Baby Ruth candy bar, which has the label “four grams of protein per bar.” Which, she says, is true “because it happens to have peanuts in it. But, it’s also a candy bar with 32 grams of sugar,” which effectively cancels out any muscle-building benefits that protein may have.
Additionally, some studies have found that excess sugar can actually hinder absorption of key nutrients–which means you may not even get that scant amount of protein that the candy bar’s label used to lure you in.
And while those tricks–checking ingredients and labels, and getting savvy about other names for sugar–may seem obvious, they must not be, because the average American, Pomeranz points out in her article, still consumes way too much of the sweet stuff. According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. The recommended amount is about 5. Which means that sugar labeling is either still vexing consumers, or they just don’t care–but not caring is another issue altogether.
At the end of the day, Pomeranz suggests, go with what you know is healthy: Unprocessed foods.
“Really, people should be eating whole foods that aren’t in packaging. Sugar is used to keep food stable on the shelf for a long time, so if you’re looking to eat healthy, nutritious food, you want whole foods, or things that need to be in the refrigerator. If it can stay on the shelves for years, it’s probably full of added sugar.”
Image: Bryan Solomon via Shutterstock