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How To Understand Those Tricky Sugar Labels

Beware of claims like "no added sugar" or "all natural".
Sugar has nearly 50 different names. No wonder we're confused.
Sugar has nearly 50 different names. No wonder we're confused.

Have you ever bought a packet of lollies and inhaled the whole thing after seeing "all natural" or "no added sugar" on the front? You're not alone.

Understanding the sugar content of a product can be confusing and difficult, and it's not made any easier by misleading claims like "no added sugar" plastered on foods we might otherwise be wary of.

Once you know the tips and tricks, reading sugar labels can be easy -- you just have to know what you're looking for.

The problem

Sugar has nearly 50 various names and types but current labelling laws don't require food manufacturers to differentiate between added or naturally occurring sugars. In other words, sugar is often hidden and might refer to anything from white table sugar to rice malt syrup.

"In the statement of ingredients, the generic name 'sugar' is permitted to be used to describe different forms of sucrose being: white sugar, white refined sugar, caster sugar, castor sugar, loaf or cube sugar, icing sugar, coffee sugar, coffee crystals or raw sugar," Food Standards Australia and NZ spokesperson Lorraine Haase told The Huffington Post Australia.

With these claims such as 'natural' or 'with added ...' it is best to be wary. These can be misleading and don't necessarily paint the full picture.

"The unfortunate thing which is really overlooked is the nutrition information panel lists 'sugars' but that doesn't tell you if it's naturally occurring or added," Alan Barclay -- accredited practising dietitian, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia and Chief Scientific Officer at the Glycemic Index Foundation -- told The Huffington Post Australia.

"This distinction is quite important as the naturally occurring sugars are usually part of fruit or dairy products and contain various vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre."

According to accredited practising dietitian Chloe McLeod, this hidden nature of sugar means people with IBS may need to be cautious of sugar-containing products as some types can cause more problems than others.

"For people who need to be careful with high FODMAP foods, the sugar alcohols (such as sorbitol and mannitol) and fructose are both high FODMAP. It's really beneficial for people to be able to tell," McLeod said.

1. Be wary of claims such as "no added sugar"

Common claims you might see on packaging include "all natural" and "no added sugar". However, these claims are made voluntarily by food businesses and can be extremely misleading.

"Avoid making decisions based on nutrient claims on the front of the pack as these are not well regulated and are often misleading," Tania Ferraretto -- accredited practising dietitian and a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia -- told HuffPost Australia.

McLeod agrees, saying that these claims can encourage people to buy products which aren't as healthy as they're made out to be.

"What 'no added sugar' is referring to is when the product is being made, any sugar that is in it was naturally occurring in the first place," McLeod said. "Fruit juice is a common example of this, but it doesn't mean that it's low in sugar or that it's a healthy choice. It just means sugar wasn't added in the making of the product."

Don't be fooled by "all natural" lollies.
Don't be fooled by "all natural" lollies.

"With these claims such as 'natural' or 'with added ...', it is best to be wary. These can be misleading and don't necessarily paint the full picture," Ferraretto said. "Basically take no notice, they don't mean anything.

"The best thing to do is to read the nutrition information panel for clear information. Being label savvy means you can make an informed decision."

2. Look at the nutrition information panel

"The best thing to do is look at the nutrition information panel on the back or side of the packet," McLeod told HuffPost Australia.

"It will say 'carbohydrate' and underneath it 'sugar' -- this is differentiating between the longer chain sugars (like polysaccharides and oglisaccaraides found in complex carbohydrates) and the shorter chain sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides)."

Ideally, we want to aim for the sugar content in the 'per 100g' column to be less than 10 grams per 100 grams.

"If there is fruit in the product, at the moment the recommendation is up to 20 grams per 100 grams, but the lower the better. There's no need for it to be up that high and in most instances if it is, there's more added sugar in the product anyway," McLeod said.

Yep, that cookie is probably sugar packed, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it.
Yep, that cookie is probably sugar packed, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it.

3. Check the ingredients list

According to Haase, the statement of ingredients must list each ingredient in descending order of ingoing weight.

"The position of a sugar ingredient in the statement of ingredients is therefore indicative of the contribution of that ingredient to the overall product," Haase told HuffPost Australia.

"Ingredients are listed in order of quantity so the higher up sugar is on the list, the more sugar a product contains," Ferraretto added.

If sugar is in the first five ingredients, the product is generally going to be high in added sugars, meaning it's best to look for another lower sugar option. Don't forget: sugar has all sorts of names.

"Be aware that sugar may be listed under numerous names, including rice malt syrup, honey, dextrose, sucrose, malt, maple syrup, corn syrup solids, table sugar and many others," Ferraretto said.

Naturally occurring sugars

These are found in milk, fruit, vegetables and legumes. They are eaten in smaller quantities, along with many important nutrients.

Added sugars

These have been refined from plants such as sugar cane. They can be added to food or drink in large amounts to make cakes, biscuits and soft drinks. Added sugars may not come with helpful nutrients and can increase the energy of a food or drink. So they are sometimes called 'energy dense' and 'nutrient poor'.


To help you differentiate between added and natural sugars, Barclay advises to look for words with the suffix '-ose'.

"If you look at the ingredients list and you can see it contains fruit or dairy products, it's more likely to be naturally occurring sugars, but if there are sugar names that end in '-ose' that generally indicates it's an added sugar," Barclay told HuffPost Australia.

If the product contains sugar with '-ol' on the end, these are sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol.

"These can be found naturally in some foods but are also put into things like chewing gum and breath mints," McLeod said.

"If it contains milk, then you can expect it to contain lactose or potentially galactose if it's a fermented milk product."

Whole fruit is always a better choice.
Whole fruit is always a better choice.

4. Opt for the natural choice

If, for example, you're choosing between a fruit juice and soda, a natural fruit juice is the better option. Better yet, eat the whole fruit instead.

"Foods that are nutritious without lots of added sugar are best, for example fruit or dairy products," Ferraretto said. "Unfortunately many people don't discriminate between sources of sugar that are healthy and those that contain lots of added sugar and have little nutritional value."

5. Enjoy in moderation

This is not to say all sugar is bad. The World Health Organisation recommends five percent of our overall daily energy intake to come from sugar, or roughly 25 grams (six teaspoons). It's the quantity and frequency at which you are consuming these products that is important.

"There is a focus on sugar in popular diets at the moment. Unfortunately just focusing on sugar leads to a narrow focus that does not consider nutrition as a whole and, as a result, can lead to misleading and potentially harmful dietary advice," Ferraretto said.

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