8 Ways Food Companies Hide the Sugar Content of Foods
By Helen West, RD |
Eating a lot of added sugar is really bad for your health.
The average American may be eating around 15 teaspoons (60 grams) of added sugar per day (10).
However, most people aren’t pouring tons of sugar on their food.
A large part of the sugar people eat is “hidden” inside various packaged and processed foods, many of which are then marketed as healthy.
Here are 8 ways that food companies hide the sugar content of their foods.
- Calling Sugar by a Different Name
Sugar is the general name given to the short-chain carbs that give your food a sweet taste. However, sugar has many different forms and names.
You may recognize some of these names, such as glucose, fructose and sucrose. Others are harder to identify.
The fact that companies use these different types of sugar, especially ones with more unusual names, makes spotting sugar on food labels difficult.
To stop yourself from accidentally eating too much sugar, look out for these added sugars on food labels:
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Buttered sugar
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Caster sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Crystalline fructose
- Date sugar
- Dextran, malt powder
- Ethyl maltol
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Golden sugar
- Invert sugar
- Muscovado sugar
- Palm sugar
- Organic raw sugar
- Rapadura sugar
- Evaporated cane juice
- Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
Food manufacturers also add sugar to foods in the form of syrups. Syrups are usually thick liquids that are made up of large amounts of sugar dissolved in water.
They are used to sweeten a wide variety of foods, but they are most often found in cold drinks or other liquids.
Common syrups to look out for on food labels include:
- Agave nectar
- Carob syrup
- Golden syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Oat syrup
- Rice bran syrup
- Rice syrup
Unfortunately, the list of different names for sugar is even longer. For a more detailed review of the names that sugar can go by, check out this article.
Bottom Line: Sugar has many different names and forms, which can make it difficult to spot sugar on food labels.
- Using Many Different Types of Sugar
Ingredients are listed by weight, with the main ingredients listed first. This means that the more of something there is in a food, the higher up on the list it appears.
Food manufacturers often take advantage of this. To make their products appear healthier, some use smaller amounts of three or four different types of sugar in one product.
These sugars then appear further down on the ingredients list, making a product look like it’s low in sugar when sugar is actually one of the main ingredients.
For example, some protein bars — despite being considered healthy — are very high in added sugar. There may be as much as 7.5 teaspoons (30 grams) of added sugar in a single bar.
Below is an example of an ingredients list taken from a protein bar. The different sugars are indicated in bold.
- Protein blend (soy protein isolate, whey protein concentrate, calcium caseinate)
- Corn syrup
- Flavored coating (sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil, cocoa, whey, nonfat milk, soy lecithin, natural flavor)
- Coconut oil
- Natural flavor
- Soy lecithin
- Guar gum
The ingredients list makes this bar look like it contains more protein than sugar, since the first ingredient on the list is a protein blend.
However, there are four different types of sugar in this bar.
This means that, despite containing 20 grams of protein, this bar contains 29 grams of sugar. That’s two more grams of sugar than a Snickers bar.
So if you’re looking at food labels, be aware that there may be more than one type of sugar listed on the label.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers can sometimes use three or four different types of sugar. These are often added in smaller amounts and can make a product look lower in sugar than it is.
- Adding Sugar to Foods You’d Least Expect
It’s common sense that a piece of cake or a candy bar probably has a lot of sugar in it.
However, some food manufacturers add large amounts of sugar to foods that are generally not sweet. Examples include breakfast cereals, spaghetti sauce and yogurt.
Some yogurts can contain as much as 6 teaspoons (29 grams) of sugar in a single container.
Even whole-grain breakfast bars, which may seem like a healthy choice, can contain as much as 4 teaspoons (16 grams) of sugar in one bar.
Many people don’t realize these foods contain added sugar, and are therefore unaware of how much they’re consuming.
So if you’re buying food or ingredients that have been pre-packaged or processed, make sure you read the label and check the sugar content — even if the food is labeled as healthy.
Bottom Line: Sugar can be added to all sorts of foods, even ones that don’t taste sweet. Make sure to check the labels of packaged or processed foods.
- Using “Healthy” Sugars Instead of Sucrose
Food companies also make some of their products appear healthier by swapping sugar for an alternative “healthier” sweetener.
These unrefined sweeteners are usually made from the sap, fruit, flowers or seeds of plants. They may also be made by animals — like honey, for example.
Products that contain these sweeteners will often have claims on their labels, such as, “contains no refined sugar” or “refined sugar-free.”
This means that they don’t contain white sugar, which has been processed to remove the molasses.
These sugars can appear healthier, since some are thought to have a slightly lower glycemic index than regular sugar and may provide a few nutrients.
However, the amount of nutrients these sugars provide is usually very low and “unrefined” added sugar is still added sugar.
There is also currently no evidence that swapping one form of sugar for another will provide any health benefits, particularly if you are still eating too much sugar.
Here are a few examples of common sweeteners that are high in sugar, but often labeled as healthy:
- Agave syrup
- Birch syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Cane sugar
- Sugar beet syrup
If you see these sweeteners on a food label, remember that they are still sugar and should be eaten sparingly.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers sometimes replace white table sugar with unrefined or “raw” sugar. This can make the product appear healthier, but unrefined sugar is still sugar.
- Combining Added Sugars With Natural Sugars on the Ingredients List
Certain foods, such as fruit, vegetables and dairy products, contain naturally occurring sugars. Unlike added sugar, these aren’t really a health concern.
This is because naturally occurring sugars are difficult to eat in large amounts. Additionally, eating whole foods that contain them provides other beneficial nutrients.
For example, a cup of milk contains 3 teaspoons (13 grams) of sugar. Yet you also get 8 grams of protein and around one-quarter of your daily requirements for calcium and vitamin D (11).
The same size serving of Coke contains nearly twice the amount of sugar and no other nutrients (12).
One of the problems with food labels is that they don’t list how much of the sugar in a product is added sugar and how much is natural sugar. They combine all the sugar together and list it as a single amount.
This makes it really tricky to identify how much sugar is found naturally in the food and how much is added.
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to identify how much sugar in food comes from added sugar.
Bottom Line: Added and naturally occurring sugars are often listed together on food labels. For this reason, it can be hard to work out how much sugar comes from harmful added sugar.
- Adding a Health Claim to Products
It’s not always easy to tell which products on the shelf are healthy and which are not.
Food manufacturers often put health claims on the front of foods. This can make some foods seem like a healthy choice, when in fact they are full of added sugar.
The most common examples of this are in products that are labeled as “healthy,” “low-fat,” “diet” or “light.”
These products are indeed often lower in fat and calories than the regular versions. However, food manufacturers often add more sugar to make them taste good.
Bottom Line: Products with health claims such as low-fat, diet or light can have more sugar than the regular versions.
- Having a High Number of Servings per Pack
Food packaging often comes with nutrition information prominently displayed per 3.5 ounces (100 grams) and also per portion.
A common trick in the food industry is to make the listed portion size really small.
Usually, this means there may be several servings in a packet.
The amount of sugar in each of these small servings might appear low when, in fact, most people would eat two or three times that amount in one serving.
To avoid this trap, look at the portion size listed and the total weight of the product.
If there are lots of servings for a small amount of food, you might mean end up eating more sugar than you had planned.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers can make products seem like they contain less sugar than they do by listing small portion sizes.
- Making Sweet Versions of a Low-Sugar Brand
You might know that some of your favorite brands of foods are quite low in sugar.
However, food manufacturers sometimes piggyback on an established brand and release a new version that contains way more sugar.
This is quite common with breakfast cereals, where a whole-grain cereal that’s low in sugar may appear with added flavors or different ingredients.
This can confuse people who assume that the new version is just as healthy as their usual choice.
Bottom Line: Brands of food that are low in sugar can have other products that are much higher in sugar. This attracts loyal customers who may not realize the new version isn’t as healthy as the original.
Take Home Message
Added sugar can be really hard to spot.
The easiest way to avoid added sugar is to cook most of your food at home and avoid highly processed foods.
That said, not all convenience foods are unhealthy or contain lots of added sugar.
If you’re buying pre-packed foods, make sure you learn how to spot added sugar on food labels.