Sweet Deception: Why You Can't Trust 'Sugar' Labels


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  56 comments   :  36,561 Views

Raise your hand if you think that sugar is bad for your health. Now keep your hand up if you try to avoid foods with added sugars. I’m guessing most still have their hands up (at least I would hope so). Here's one more question. Keep your hand up if you read the "Sugars" section of the Nutrition Facts label in order to determine how much sugar is in the foods you eat.
If your hand is still up, I've got some shocking news for you: That label doesn't mean a thing.
Although Nutrition Facts labels were designed to help consumers better understand the foods they buy, many people find them downright confusing. And the whole "sugar" issue is just one of many reasons why.
Those of you who are long-time members of SparkPeople.com, our parent site that features free calorie-tracking tools, may have noticed that SparkPeople flat out refuses to include "Sugars" (as in, that section from Nutrition Facts labels) on our Nutrition Tracker. People hem and haw about it because they want to track how much "sugar" they are eating. But we didn't allow the option because we know just how misleading that label is.

The "sugars" listed on a food label are NOT synonymous with "added sugars," although most people think that is exactly what it means. To understand what they truly are (a specific form of carbohydrate), here's a Nutrition 101 explanation for you.
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient (the other macronutrients are protein and fat) that your body uses to make glucose, which gives you energy for everything from thinking to exercising. Carbohydrates are found in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, breads, grains, dairy products, caloric sweeteners (everything from white sugar to corn syrup to agave nectar)—and the foods that contain them.  Carbohydrates can further be categorized into two main types:
  • Complex carbohydrates, including starch (which must be broken down during digestion before it can be used as glucose/energy) and fiber
  • Simple carbohydrates, which include naturally-occurring "sugars" in unprocessed fruits, vegetables and dairy products, as well as added sugars
What "sugars" on a Nutrition Label are really referring to are simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates don't just come from sweeteners. Most of us regular people (non-dietitians) relate the word "sugar" to sweets when in fact "sugars" in this case refers to the chemical composition of a particular type of carbohydrate. As a reminder, even vegetables contain some amount of "sugars" (simple carbohydrates) as do whole fruits, unsweetened yogurt and plain oatmeal. This is partly why the sugar label on foods is so confusing. It really doesn't really tell you how sweetened a product truly is.

A better indication is to look for the various names of added sweeteners in the ingredients list. When it's within the top 3-5 ingredients, or listed multiple times on a list, you know it's a pretty heavily sweetened food. Still, that won't tell you just how much sugar it contains.
Confusing, right? That's why many consumer and health groups are advocating for food labels to tell us just how many grams of added sugars a food contains. That sure would make it easier to make comparisons, wouldn't it? That could help people avoid all the sweet stuff that we know is correlated to our increased girth and possibly to a host of other health problems as well?  After all, the American Heart Association, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, MyPlate.gov, and countless other groups recommend that consumers limit their intake of added sugars. Wouldn't such a label make it easier for them to do just that?
So recently, the FDA released plans to study how an "added sugar" label would affect consumer choices. They requested public comment on their plans to do this study. Here are some groups who publicly commented against the inclusion of "added sugars" on food labels:
  • The American Bakers Association
  • The American Beverage Association
  • The Independent Bakers Association
  • The National Confectioners Association
  • The National Dairy Council
  • The National Milk Producers Federation
  • The Sugar Association
Who publicly commented in support of a study on the inclusion of "added sugar" labels?
  • The American Heart Association
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest
  • Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University
  • Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity
SparkPeople's head dietitian, Becky Hand agrees with the latter group. "When 'sugar' was added to the Nutrition Facts label years ago, I said then that it should strictly refer to 'added sugar,'" she commented. "The current label is extremely deceptive."

Whether nutrition labels ever change in this case or not, you can access a USDA document of the added sugars in 2,000 foods by clicking here (PDF).  And here's another little trick from SparkPeople's Dietitian Becky:

"When you see 'grams' of sugar listed on a label, divide the number by 4. This will tell you how many teaspoons of sugar are in a food. Sure, it may not ALL be 'added' sugars, but in the case of sweet foods or treats, it's probably pretty accurate. This method reveals that a large soda or pastry contains 10 teaspoons of added sugar! Visualize eating that amount of sugar by the teaspoon—and you may just decide to skip that sweet treat after all."
Learn More
15 Surprising Sources of Added Sugar
Breaking Your Sugar Addiction
The Truth about 'Natural' Sweeteners

This blog has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople nutrition expert, Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.
Are you trying to limit your sugar intake? Would you like to see see "added sugars" on nutrition labels? Why or why not?

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  • 56
    Thank you - 8/1/2017   7:38:31 AM
  • 55
    Knowing the added sugars is important but ultimately it the total sugar added and natural that matters. - 7/26/2017   6:50:29 AM
  • 54
    Of couse added sugar should be on labels. Shouldn't people have a right to know? I hope people begin to care as our obesity rates and related health issues escalate. An added sugar label is a no brainer. - 6/13/2017   3:58:42 PM
    With all the sponsored content on here (american beverage association, etc.), I would not allow articles like these to influence me. I DO want to know how much sugar, (especially specifically simple carbohydrates) is in foods before I buy them. I prefer to get my glucose from the 20+ years worth of stored fat I packed on during those years not worrying about simple, naturally occuring carbs! If I have ANY stored fat then I will not need ANY simple carbohydrates, and nutrition labels better be accurate in telling me this, as I am already pisst about the food pyramid, labels and advice about fats that was so terribly wrong for all those years! Now I look for full healthy fat foods with no sugar and am finally losing weight. Please stop hiding sugar, its been making people like me obese. - 5/31/2017   8:06:13 AM
  • 52
    Such good information! Totally! We all need to learn as much as we can about today's foods! - 5/23/2017   5:22:05 PM
  • 51
    This is helpful information, but I still think Spark People should allow the sugar grams listed on nutrition labels to be tracked in their food tracker online and in their app. I recently limited my intake of sugar in processed food, but allowed myself to have fruits and vegetables with naturally occurring sugar. I used another food tracker program to track my progress (one that allowed me to actually track sugar grams), and it helped me immensely to cut back on my overall sugar intake. Yes, I realize that not all sugars are created equal, but considering the long list of other nutrients, vitamins and minerals that SP allows us to track, I think sugar should certainly be one that we are allowed to at least keep tabs on when when we enter our food here. Please consider allowing this option and maybe have an asterisk or info button next to the sugar line in the tracker explaining the differences. SP is so wonderful and I'm surprised that they are making an executive decision as to what we can and cannot track with their tools, especially something that affects our weight as much as sugar does (naturally occurring or not). - 3/1/2015   10:33:20 PM
  • 50
    I'am borderline diabetic so yes I most definitely would like to sugar and carbs listed - 9/4/2014   8:20:38 AM
    Added sugars and natural sugars are not the same. They SHOULD be listed separately. There was a post on CNN stating that there is going to be a change to the nutrition labels that shows the added sugars. - 4/29/2014   6:02:31 PM
    Nutritional labels don't lie (at least, they shouldn't) so if it says 10g of sugar on the label, there's 10g of sugar in the product. Some might be natural, some might be added, but it's all the same in the end. Companies already have the option of stating "No added sweetener" or "Naturally occuring sugars" on the label. - 1/6/2014   9:41:58 PM
  • 47
    What's funny is by reading the last several comments, it seems your explanation in this article is actually doing more to confuse some people, who now think that you're saying the 'sugar' content on the nutrition label does *not* include added sugars, rather than meaning it contains both added and naturally occurring, a total of all sugars.

    I agree with those who say this is rather condescending to say we aren't capable of understanding that even healthy foods can contain some sugars, just like we track fat, even though there are unhealthy fats, and not all fats should be avoided, we just want to be aware we're eating good, healthy fats like are found in avocados or olive oil. We can be aware there are good sugars such as are found in fruits and vegetables without being denied the ability to track out total sugar consumption. - 1/6/2014   12:37:31 PM
    I noticed many labels have forms of sugar not lisited on label like: caned sugar juice, maltoce, sucrose, lactose, sucrolose, and others - 8/26/2012   11:00:22 AM
  • ESTJ66
    Calirification: the sugar content indicated on the label includes added sugar. What it doesn't do is DIFFERENTIATE between the naturally occuring sugars and the sugar added by the manufacturing process.
    I personally want to know how much TOTAL sugar my food contains because my body can not differentiate the difference between naturally occuring and added sugar - it needs to metabolize ALL the sugar contained in my food. When I hear people equate "naturally occuring" with "good for you" I cringe!!!
    Education is what is needed NOT experts deciding for us what information we need to have or are capable of understanding. - 8/22/2012   9:52:36 PM
    Love this article! I did not realized that added sugars were not included in the nutritional information. That doesn't make any sense to me.
    - 8/22/2012   3:49:09 PM
    i'd love to see an added sugar amount. However, if it's one of the first ingredients, you can bet it's significant. - 8/22/2012   9:53:18 AM
  • 42
    Even those on the diabetes management plan on here can't track sugars. How much sense does that make? We should be able to track it if we want to. How condescending to leave it off because you assume no one understands! - 8/22/2012   12:42:04 AM
    Maybe SparkPeople could have a "test", and then if people passed the test, SparkPeople would know they are smart enough to know what the "sugar" on the nutrition label means. :)

    Sorry, it just gets annoying when people assume all of us don't understand such simple things. But, I guess if you are a site such as SparkPeople, you have to go with the lowest intelligence denominator, or you may be held liable for someone's foolish actions. - 8/21/2012   10:43:23 PM
    Looking for "sugar" in the top 5 ingredients is the very first piece of nutritional advice my mother ever gave me! - 8/21/2012   1:53:25 PM
  • 39
    It's unfortunate our government is more inclined to go the way of the "lobbyist" opposed to what's in the best interest of the consumer (their constituents) - 8/21/2012   5:02:11 AM
  • 38
    I'm always in favor of more information rather than less information given to consumers.

    It's not about assuming people are ignorant (though many people are ignorant about what all the items on a nutrition label mean), it's about being completely upfront with what is in your products. Just because you you make it clear what you have in your product does not mean you are trying to insult consumers and I think it's wrong to think of full disclosure as meaning that. - 8/20/2012   8:17:40 AM
  • 37
    I disagree. I always realized what the sugar labeling meant. Plz let people track it if they want. Dont assume we're all ignorant. - 8/19/2012   10:49:53 PM
  • 36
    I had no idea... Why is managing what I put in my body next to impossible unless I grow all of my own food!?

    Thank you fpr pointing this out. This is an article to be favorited and consulted. - 8/19/2012   8:29:16 PM
  • 35
    Thank you for englightening me. I thought the listing for Sugars on the nutritional label meant total sugars, too (included added sugars). Since sugar is one of those things that tends to trigger cravings in me, I read a lot of labels for hidden sugars, but a more visible listing of added sugars by weight would sure be helpful. - 8/19/2012   8:52:14 AM
  • 34
    I've never thought sugars referred to added sugars on the nutritional label. I've always assumed it meant all the natural AND added sugars in the product. It would not be helpful to only list added sugars. I find this a strange article, basically pointless. - 8/19/2012   3:40:02 AM
  • 33
    The National Dairy Council? I'm beginning to believe that milk doesn't do the body good. - 8/19/2012   2:17:03 AM
    When I use those medications my craving screaming "Sugar, sugar, please". Sometime I say yes; but a lot of time I say NO. - 8/19/2012   1:26:47 AM
    I use some medications that make me craving for sugar. - 8/18/2012   9:05:37 PM
  • 30
    I try not to eat too much containing added sugars. I agree the added sugar should be listed on the nutrition labels. It certainly would help. - 8/18/2012   8:13:17 PM
  • 29
    I am reading labels and working on cutting out added sugars. Right now I am cutting out HFCS. if it is in the label I don't buy it.
    The less ingredients listed the better. so while I am cutting out processed foods I am really just cutting out majorly processed foods. Having the rest in moderation will be taken care of by our wonderful bodies. It can handle all kinds of stuff- including poison-- which of course the processed sugar is. The body can only deal with so much- the rest has to be stored until it can be processed by your body. Which is why not overloading your system is so important. - 8/18/2012   6:00:27 PM
  • PMC647
    While on this subject of labels, I would like to add that it certainly would be more helpful if the ingredients listed on the labels were in measurements that Americans actually use. I wouldn't know a gram if I tripped over it in the street! No wonder the obesity rate has soared -- people still don't know how much they're eating! Thanks for the comment about dividing the grams by 4 to get the number of teaspoons, that's actually very helpful! Maybe we should lobby to have a total overhaul of nutrition labels -- truth and understanding in labeling laws! - 8/18/2012   3:39:05 PM
  • 27
    Perhaps it's because I've read a lot of nutritional literature and have an interest in health, but I've always known that the sugar numbers on the nutritional labels don't specifically mean "added sugar". I've thought that the information on the labels was pretty straightforward. That number gives you the actual sugar content, not the added sugar content. - 8/18/2012   2:08:12 PM
  • 26
    It is very nice that the list of those Sugar-Pushers who were AGAINST the inclusion of listing "added sugars" to the nutritional information. Now we have a nice list to gather addresses and write those Pushers to tell then we DO want that info on the labels. I have, at odd times, written individual companies and told then that the specific reason I was NOT buying their products was because it contained High Fructose Corn Syrup. They may choose to ignore my letter, but oh well. - 8/18/2012   11:56:47 AM
  • 25
    I always read the ingredients to look for sugar content, by all of its names. For instance, I refuse to by any dried fruit that has added sugar. So I stick to raisins, apricots and prunes. I eat my foods as natural as I can get them. If there is "sugar" in the ingredients, I avoid it. - 8/18/2012   10:33:51 AM
  • JMB369
    I think this more precise labeling would be really helpful, and agree with the SP blogger who suggested that labels include both "naturally occurring sugars" and "added sugars." And yes, the list of organizations who are pro and con the new labeling is fascinating, but not in the least bit surprising. Time for the public to weigh in and support more accurate labeling. - 8/18/2012   10:10:21 AM
  • 23
    Love the willingness of beverage, baking, etc. industries to support dishonest practices--it's maddening unethical.

    It's also why I NEVER buy ANY commercial baked products. I won't eat lies or mysteries. - 8/18/2012   10:07:53 AM
  • 22
    Need to know what you are eating to beat weight problems yours and the nation - 8/18/2012   9:34:58 AM
  • 21
    I am very much in favor of seeing "added sugar to a nutrition label. You will notice who do not want it and who do. If there is money to be made and says obesity is not their fault, it is big business who are out to make a buck, that is the main reason to stay away from ALL PROCESSED foods. You can't sneak sugar into a carrot. - 8/18/2012   9:34:58 AM
  • 20
    super great first comment! - 8/18/2012   9:21:40 AM
  • 19
    Dr. Mercola recommends reading "The Fat Switch", which deals with sugar.
    If you have ever struggled losing weight and keeping it off, you already know what a challenge that can be. Dr. Richard Johnson, chief of the Division of Renal Diseases and Hypertension at the University of Colorado has published hundreds of articles and two books on this topic: The Sugar Fix, and most recently, The Fat Switch, which presents a groundbreaking approach to preventing and reversing obesity.
    According to Dr. Johnson, based on his decades of research:
    “Those of us who are obese eat more because of a faulty “switch” and exercise less because of a low energy state. If you can learn how to control the specific “switch” located in the powerhouse of each of your cells – the mitochondria – you hold the key to fighting obesity.”
    - 8/18/2012   9:09:51 AM
    I would be in favor of this, because it probably will result in people buying less products with added sugar if they have more clear information. Note the industries lobbying against this labeling. I was a little surprised to see the milk producers association against it until I remembered how much added sugar goes into products containing milk, such as yogurt and ice cream. Unfortunately, if recent history is any indication, these industries will win. I realise that some people have to be very careful with foods that naturally contain sugars too, but this labeling effort would be a start to help people make better choices, if they care to do so. - 8/18/2012   8:57:08 AM
    What about having a listing of "naturally occurring sugars" and a listing of "added sugars" on the same label. Same with Carbs. in general. "Simple" and "Complex" and grams of each? - 8/18/2012   8:42:13 AM
  • 16
    Besides looking at the nutrition label I read the list of ingredients. If sugar is listed as one of the first five ingredients I put it back. Also, if there is anything ending in -ose those are also a form of sugar. Think of it rhyming with the word gross. If I really need to buy the item I look to see if it has less than 10g of sugar per serving. - 8/18/2012   7:19:24 AM
    I think knowing the total sugar of an item is useful. I don't want to just know the added sugar. If you're looking to eat more complex carbohydrates and reduce simple carbs then you need to know total sugars. Being a naturally occuring sugar does not change how it affects you blood sugar. For instance, yes dates are not processed and have incidental goodness, but they are still mostly (natural) sugar and should be eaten in moderation. It also may be that a serving of oatmeal would be better than a few dates in keeping you fuller for longer. - 8/18/2012   4:58:15 AM
  • MADDY108
    Informative article , eating healthy these days is such a mission and every bit of information helps - 8/18/2012   3:59:11 AM
  • 13
    It would make it so simple to track if added sugars were listed on products but that would hurt sales and also give big business another reason the have hugh price increases - 8/17/2012   11:49:10 PM
  • LJ32920
    Hey "Lostpenny", you are confusing sugars and, well, sugars. Remember, everything we eat is broken down into some form of sugar. Sugar is our fuel, the only kind our brains and bodies can use. It is oversimplifying to call everything in food a Fat, a Protein, or a Sugar, but unless we all get advanced degrees in physiology, it's a quick way to make sense of food.

    The only living things that can make their own food are plants. Every other living thing has to eat plants or eat the eaters of plants. Fruits and vegetables are plants. They have fructose and other "sugars". Since the food plants make for themselves is a "sugar", everything else has this natural sugar in it. So cows make milk that has a "natural sugar" called lactose. Most of the things on labels ending in "-ose" are some form of "sugar". But you're right~ milk, fruits, and vegetables only have "sugar" because the sugars they have are not fats or proteins. Have to call it something. So it's sugar. But not "bad" sugar, unless you eat huge amounts of them.

    We can still track sugars if we want. We can track anything by calling it an "exercise" or save it as an extra goal or even right on the food page by listing sugars as a group or individually, (depending on how OCD-ish we are), in "favorites", just as we list anything not found in the food search. We just have to be a little more creative in making it show on the reports. I just pick some extra nutrient I'm really not interested in and and use it as a code word for "sugars". I agree with "Cecilann" that it feels kind of patronizing for SP to assume we are all too innocent or ignorant to figure out what labels mean, especially when they enlighten us. They may as well make it impossible to log our weight every day if we choose to, because they think we should be forced to follow their advice not to weigh too often. Oh, wait.... they already do that.

    Don't misunderstand~ I love all the advice and information on SP. I admire SP for giving us all these trackers and references and encouragement for FREE. I just like the freedom to make my own decisions based on the advice and information. - 8/17/2012   2:06:09 PM
  • 11
    No, I don't try to limit my sugar. But I do try to have reasonable balance.

    I have to admit to being annoyed / frustrated by the idiocy of stuff that shows teaspoons of sugar for foods as if that, by default, makes it a BAD food. But, meh, I'll eat how I eat and they can eat how they eat.

    I think having "Added sugars" -AND- "Added sweeteners" on the label would be great. I hate currently having to read through a list of ingredients to see if I can remember all the artificial sweeteners (caloric or "not") to avoid them. - 8/17/2012   1:54:20 PM
  • 10
    This is exactly why I started growing my own food and making all of my own meals. I don't buy anything processed. If I do need to buy, I better be able to read every ingredient or it goes back on the shelf. I have eliminated the added stress of trying to figure out if something has added sugars. Make it yourself and you accomplish several things.
    -- Less stress about the "goodness" of the food.
    -- No worries about what ingredients are in it.
    -- Self-confidence in your ability to manage your own health.
    -- The satisfaction of making something with your own hands.

    It is definitely worth the time and effort I have put in over the last few years to learn to grow, prepare, and store my own food. - 8/17/2012   12:50:01 PM
  • FIT2WIN4
    Thank you for this helpful information. The Spark People webite has really opened my eyes on ways to improving my health through good nutritional education. - 8/17/2012   12:41:54 PM
  • 8
    this is so helpful. Finally an easily understood explanation of sugars in food. I like the divide by 4 suggestion and I'm adding this to my TBR (to be referenced) list - 8/17/2012   12:20:09 PM
  • 7
    I have this discussion with friends who want to cut sugars but don't accept that milk, fruits and vegetables have some natural sugar. - 8/17/2012   12:15:36 PM

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