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

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


CECELW 1/24/2021
i think i read this before Report
RYCGIRL 1/23/2021
thx Report
EVIE4NOW 10/5/2020
I am glad that Spark has now included sugar on the nutrition page. I am diabetic and track that plus the carbs. So far, so good. Report
XEPHRENIA 8/31/2020
Now that the added sugar IS being labeled separately, does SparkPeople have plans to "allow" us to track this? (As an adult, I find it a bit precious for someone to tell me I can't track something that is important enough for me to have educated myself about, such as the fact that the old sugar labeling could be misleading. I'm intelligent enough to take that into consideration in my tracking.) Report
RO2BENT 8/31/2020
Gotta get educated Report
Thanks Report
MAREE1953 8/31/2020
Yes, many changes since 2012, food labels and even the American Diabetes Association has come around to low carbohydrate guidelines. The word is out: Type 2 Diabetes can be reversed through low carb diets. Report
JUNETTA2002 7/25/2020
Thanks for the information Report
I tried clicking on the PDF and it is no longer there. Report
thanks Report
Labels have changed since 2012. Still can be confusing. Report
Yes I do try to keep track of the total sugar, and especially added sugar, I consume. I would definitely support such labeling on food; more information is a good thing. Report
Sugar industry lobbyists Report
When it was discovered that I was a borderline diabetic my physician had me make an appointment for a diabetic education class. I did a lot of prep for the class so that I could have a better understanding of the material that I might encounter. I was amazed at the number of carbohydrates the ADA recommended in it's daily guideline and I told the instructor that they should be ashamed at distributing such awful information. According to them the high amount makes it easier for people to maintain. So wow, I guess if the RDA for dietary calories should be 5,000/day -- people should be able to stick to that diet, no? Report
Thanks Report
This is out of dare.... added sugars is being added to many labels. Report
Very informative, thank you. Report
Thank You for a very informative article. Report
Great Article! Thanks! Report
Today, not only am I a student of reading labels, but I do additional research Report
Sugar is not something in my nutrition file and I do read labels like a hawk. Report
There are still some foods that do not list added sugar on their labels, even when it's in the ingredients list Report
I think nutrition labels have changed since this article was written. They now are required to list added sugar. Report
Another thing to fight in the ongoing weight loss battle... sigh! Report
Good info, I asked my deli how much sugar was in boarshead peppered turkey. They checked label. 0g sugar. But on Iingredients list it came BEFORE pepper! LOL Buyer beware. Report
Thank you Report
Knowing the added sugars is important but ultimately it the total sugar added and natural that matters. Report
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. Report
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. Report
Such good information! Totally! We all need to learn as much as we can about today's foods! Report
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). Report
I'am borderline diabetic so yes I most definitely would like to sugar and carbs listed Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
I noticed many labels have forms of sugar not lisited on label like: caned sugar juice, maltoce, sucrose, lactose, sucrolose, and others Report
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. Report
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.
i'd love to see an added sugar amount. However, if it's one of the first ingredients, you can bet it's significant. Report
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! Report
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. Report
Looking for "sugar" in the top 5 ingredients is the very first piece of nutritional advice my mother ever gave me! Report
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) Report
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. Report
I disagree. I always realized what the sugar labeling meant. Plz let people track it if they want. Dont assume we're all ignorant. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
The National Dairy Council? I'm beginning to believe that milk doesn't do the body good. Report
When I use those medications my craving screaming "Sugar, sugar, please". Sometime I say yes; but a lot of time I say NO. Report