When I first started on my journey to cut added sugar out of my diet, the hardest part was the withdrawals (more on that here). The next hardest part, by far, was reading food labels! I thought I had a basic understanding of them, but in reality… I had no idea.
Some of you might already know more than my clueless self, but here is a refresher, just in case:
- The grams of sugar and percentage listed in the Nutrition Facts are not a good indicator of whether or not something has a lot of added sugar. The grams of sugar listed are actually the combined total of both natural sugars and added sugars.
So, if you see 2g of sugar listed, that actually means it’s 2g of naturally occurring AND added sugar, depending on the ingredients.
The percentage listed next to the grams of sugar is based on the average recommended amount of added sugar you should consume daily, which is much higher than the amount that I try to consume—NONE! I honestly disregard this info altogether.
- Focus on the ingredients list!!! This is by far the most important thing to take away from this post. The first thing most people look at when checking for the sugar content is the grams of sugar listed in the Nutrition Facts. I was guilty of this myself. If I saw 2 grams of sugar, I figured that was low, and probably okay to eat. BIG MISTAKE!
I wasn’t taking into account whether or not that sugar was natural or added.
The FDA does not currently require companies in the U.S. to differentiate between added and natural sugars in the Nutrition Facts on food labels, although some companies have begun to do it anyway. This will be changing as of 2021, when it will become a requirement that all labels specify between the two. Can’t wait!
- The only way to tell if something has added sugars is to check the ingredients list. This part takes a bit of memory. In order to know what to look for, you will need to memorize the main culprits—or write them in your phone if there’s no way you’re fitting another bit of info in that brain of yours! The big ones to look out for are ingredient names that include the following: sugar (duh!), ose, ol, syrup, and of course any of the name-brand fake sugars or sugar substitutes.
If you see any of those in the ingredients list, BEWARE. There is added sugar. Products with those ingredients are the products I personally would not buy. I avoid any type of sweetener listed in the ingredients.
Also, keep in mind that the higher up on the list an ingredient is, the more of it there is.
- If I see there are grams of sugar in the Nutrition Facts, but do not see any of the precarious names for sugar listed in the ingredients list, I know I am probably good to buy! It’s all about the ingredients list. One of the ingredients listed probably just has naturally occurring sugars. For instance, on the food label below from a can of tomato paste, there are 4g of sugar listed in the Nutrition Facts, but there are no sugars listed in the ingredients list below it. That’s because the 4g of sugar are from the tomatoes themselves, which is perfectly fine! Tomatoes are good for you and the nutrients and fiber in them make up for the sugar.
- Pay attention to serving sizes!!! The grams of sugar listed are only the grams of sugar in the serving size specified in the Nutrition Facts. As you can see on the label above, the serving size is only 2 tbsp of tomato paste, which has 4g of sugar. Take note that there are many servings in one can. Same goes for most products. If you consume more than the serving size listed, you will also be consuming more than the amount of sugar listed. If you were to consume the whole can of tomato paste (5 servings) in a recipe, you would be looking at about 20 g of sugar just for that one ingredient.
Keep in mind that any sugar, whether natural or added, is processed the same by your body and will affect your blood sugar (and overall health), which is why I keep ALL sugars to a minimum.
I avoid products with any added sugars in the ingredients list, but also try to stick to foods with a low amount of Total Sugars (in grams) as well. I take into account the other foods I am eating that day and the other ingredients in the product, to decide whether or not the grams of sugar in that food are worth it to me. I’m probably not eating a packaged food item with 17 g of sugar, even if it’s all natural sugar.
Many whole foods naturally have a high sugar content, but this isn’t necessarily bad, because they are natural sugars. Apples for example have 19g of sugar on average. But on the flip side, they are full of minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols that are great for you.
You have to weigh the pros and cons of the foods you eat. Something like a fruit high in natural sugars will most likely have tons of other health benefits that make it worth eating, whereas a processed granola bar loaded with added sugar probably will not.
To summarize this long explanation… Avoid added sugars in the ingredients list.
The easiest way to avoid reading labels altogether is to eat whole foods that don’t have labels! 🙂