Sugar Labeling

Today, I have a guest post by Annabel Hertz, Founder of Goodbuy Sugar, a start-up that navigates the world of low-sugar, low-carb, and sugar-free sweets. She makes recommendations for those reducing their sugar intake and hopes to develop a certification or label for low-carb sweets. She knows a lot about the effects of sugar and how it’s labeled, and was kind enough to share some of that information here:

The amount of sugar in a packaged food product is found in the Nutrition Facts Label, which is regulated by the FDA. An update to the label was announced in 2016, and the changes for large food manufacturers went into effect last July. They will continue go into effect for smaller manufacturers next year.

As a result of pressure from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), advocacy groups, and scientists, the new labels include more information on sugar present in food. First, labels now make a distinction between how much sugar naturally exists in a product versus how much is added. Some examples of naturally existing sugar are glucose and fructose found in fruits and vegetables and lactose found in dairy, as well as sugar-based natural products such as pure maple syrup, honey, and molasses.

The second change is the use of a percent Daily Value (%DV) for sugar. Daily Values, developed by the FDA, are recommendations for nutrient intake. They allows consumers to see how much of an “allowance” they’ve used up with a serving of food. The FDA recommends that less than 10% of calories per day should come from added sugars.

This new labeling is an improvement in transparency, however there is still information not reflected in label requirements that could be a concern for those restricting their sugar intake. Before delving into that, let’s go over the Glycemic Index (GI). GI is a measurement system which ranks foods in terms of how fast they affect blood sugar levels on a scale of 1-100. A reading of 55 or less is low, while a reading above 70 is high. Pure sugar or sucrose has a GI of 65.

Now back to the labels, where I’ll talk about two elements that aren’t captured. Sugar alcohols, a common sugar replacement in processed foods, are derived from plants such as berries and fruits and altered through a chemical process. You’ll see them listed in the ingredients as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, or maltitol. On the new labels, these sugar alcohols are not classified as added sugars. Rather, they are simply included within Total Carbohydrates. They can be voluntarily disclosed as a sub-item like Sugars and Added Sugars, but this is not mandatory. The only time they are required to be listed as a sub-item is when a “Sugar-Free” or “No Added Sugar” claim is made on the packaging.

Why does this matter? Most sugar alcohols do not affect blood sugar, but some of them do. Sorbitol, xylitol and lactitol range between 5-12 on the GI. Maltitol, on the other hand, is one of the most commonly used sugar alcohols and has a GI of 35. When maltitol is used, you are still taking in more than half the amount of sugar! Given the way these are labeled, consumers may not know the amount of sugar alcohols they are consuming and may not be aware of its effect on blood sugar.

The second element I’ll talk about is refined starches like cornstarch, potato and tapioca starches, and rice flour. These convert to sugar quickly and can spike blood sugar the way glucose does. But because they aren’t technically sugars, they’re simply included in Total Carbohydrates. This creates a situation in which a consumer might eat a sugar-free cookie that does more damage to their blood sugar than a cookie that has more sugar according to the nutrition label. The only way to get a sense of how big a glycemic risk they face is by looking at the relative placement of these starches in the ingredient list. In case you didn’t know, ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.

As of now, there isn’t a good way to tell a product’s glycemic load, which is the GI of the ingredients multiplied by the amount of those ingredients, except by estimation. Further, people may also assume that naturally occurring sugars are somehow better for them than “added sugars.” This could lead one to mistakenly choose a high-sugar juice over a low-sugar soda, for example.

This has been some great information on sugar and how it’s labeled. Since the holidays are coming up, this will be the last post on here for this year. Stay tuned for more to come in January.

Image by: Dmitriy Be

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