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31 Aug 2019

Four ways sugar is fooling you

Sweet-sounding aliases and confusing labelling are making it harder to spot and avoid sugar in everyday foods

Too much sugar can make us overweight and this can lead to a plethora of health issues such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Sugar also damages our teeth and nearly a third of UK adults and nearly half of teenagers have some level of tooth decay.

But sugar in food is increasingly hidden behind sweet-sounding aliases and confusing labelling, making it harder to spot and avoid.

Here are four ways sugar can fool you and how to root it out in your everyday food:

1. It's going by another name

There's a dizzying array of ways you'll see sugar labelled these days.

Some are not easy to identify as sugar, such as hydrolysed starch.

Others have quite innocuous sounding names, such as coconut blossom nectar, grape sugar and oat syrup.

Dextrose is a sugar produced from corn, levulose is essentially another name for fructose (fruit sugar), and molasses is a by-product of the sugar-making process.

These are all sugar

2. It can sound more healthy

There's a health halo surrounding certain sugars, such as agave, coconut blossom nectar and date syrup. These are often found in foods that we may perceive as healthier options, such as protein balls or energy bars.

But while it's true that some of these sugars may slightly differ in their nutrient make-up, colour or taste, it doesn't matter if the label says nectar or syrup, refined or unrefined, brown or white. If it's a sugar (regardless of whether it's in the name or not), it will be made up of glucose or fructose molecules (or a combination), and will act on the body in the same way.

This applies to honey, too.

It is true that some sugars, for example date or coconut sugar, contain small amounts of nutrients such as calcium, iron or fibre. But sugar is not considered a useful source of these. To get them in any significant quantity, you would have to consume an unhealthy amount.

Labels and lingo supermarkets use to get you to buy their chicken

3. It's hard to tell how much you're eating

Once you've managed to negotiate your way through the minefield of sugars in disguise, trying to tot up your sugar total and stick within recommended guidelines is your next hurdle.

Food labels currently reflect EU legislation, which sets a guidance limit of 90g total sugars a day for an adult. But a 2015 Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) report marked an important change in the way sugar is defined, and the focus is now on 'free sugars'.

What you need to know about free sugars

  • Free sugars include all types of sugar added to food by a manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, smoothies and fruit juice (fresh or from concentrate).
  • Sugars naturally found in dairy-based products (lactose) are not classed as free sugars, and nor is the sugar found in unprocessed fruits and vegetables when whole or chopped.
  • Free sugars shouldn't exceed more than 5% of total dietary energy.
  • This equates to around 30g (seven sugar cubes or teaspoons) a day for adults and children over 11.
  • For children aged seven to ten it's 24g, and four to six-year olds it's 19g.

The latest National Diet and Nutrition survey found that we eat between two and three times the recommended maximum of free sugars. But knowing how much you are consuming can be confusing, as intrinsic and free sugars aren't separated from total sugars on labels.

The means that an Innocent Smoothie Pomegranate Magic (250ml), which, while full of crushed and pressed fruit and one of your five a day, has 33g of sugar which is 110% of your daily free sugar allowance.

Public Health England recommends people should only be having one 150ml glass of smoothie or fruit juice a day because of fruit's free sugar content when blended or crushed.

How to read the label

  • The higher up an ingredient is, the more of it there is. But also look for the number of sugar sources, in this example there are five - invert sugar syrup, sugar, glucose syrup, honey and molasses.
  • Nutritional information tables will always include 'of which sugars'. This tells you how much total sugar is in a product.
  • Any Reference Intake (RI) percentage will relate back to the official maximum amount of 90g a day. Here a bar is 11% of the 90g total sugars but would form around a third of our free sugar allowance (which under EU regulations doesn't have to be labelled on packaging). A small amount of the sugar in these brunch bars comes from milk which doesn't count as free sugar.
  • Traffic-light labelling isn't mandatory and these bars, like around a third of food we find on our shelves, don't use the traffic-light system. If they were, the label would show red for sugar content as they contain 32g per 100g and anything over 22.5g must be labelled as high in sugar.

4. 'No added' might not mean what you think

Foods can be labelled 'no added sugar' or 'naturally occurring sugars' even though they contain free sugars from fruit juice, puree or paste.

In our research we discovered a Kellogg's Cocoa and Hazelnut Granola labelled 'no added sugar' even though date paste had been added and the cereal contains 13g of sugar per 100g.

Kellogg's told us the date paste 'is used to bind the grains together so the clusters in the granola don't fall apart - not to sweeten.'

As the date paste wasn't added to sweeten, the granola can carry the 'no added sugar' label.