What are added sugars, and where are they hidden?
The human animal loves sweet foods. Sugar is quick to digest and provides easy energy to power our brains and bodies.
For the vast majority of our evolutionary history, our sweet tooth helped us select energy-dense foods to prepare us for fights and chases, and to see us through lean times.
Today, most of us aren’t running from saber-toothed cats or hunting mammoths, yet our sweet tooth remains: We are hard-wired to love sugar.
Scientists now know that eating excessive amounts of added sugar can increase the risk of obesity. And obesity increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions.
In the distant past, this wasn’t an issue for humans — sugary snacks were few and far between. Nowadays, we can buy sugar-packed foods whenever we fancy them.
Food manufacturers know that sweet treats fly off the shelves, so they’re eager to add sugar wherever possible. And sugar is relatively cheap.
So, it’s a win-win for “Big Food” — they can pack foods with delicious sweetness at a low cost and be confident that consumers will lap them up.
Things are changing, though. Consumers are more wary about added sugars.
Food companies know this, so they tend to hide the sugar content behind unfamiliar or natural-sounding names.
In this article, we’ll explain what added sugars are and provide more than 40 alternative names for added sugars to help you avoid them.
What are added sugars?
As the name suggests, added sugars are sugars that manufacturers add during processing. Sugars that naturally occur, such as those in fruits and milk, are not classed as added sugars.
Some of the most common sources of added sugars are:
However, they’re also present in more surprising places. For instance, added sugars appear in processed dairy goods, like flavored yogurts and milk.
How much can I eat?
Consuming foods with added sugars every once in a while is typically not going to be a problem for your health.
However, because excess sugar appears in so many products, over the days, weeks, months, and years, it adds up.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that added sugars should make up less than 10% of your calories each day.
The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom goes a little harder:
“Free sugars — sugars added to food or drinks, and sugars found naturally in honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, and purées — should not make up more than 5% of the energy (calories) you get from food and drink each day.”
Five percent equates to around seven sugar cubes per day, which sounds like a lot of sugar.
However, when you consider that a can of soda contains nine sugar cubes’ worth of sugar, it’s easy to see how you might end up way above that target.
How to spot added sugars
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires that food labels list “total sugars” — which includes natural sugars found in food — and “added sugars.”
They also include a percentage, which tells you how much of your daily maximum added sugar intake the product contains.
However, many of us are not in the mood for math when we’re in the grocery store, so we rely on the ingredients list.
Because consumers are increasingly savvy, they know that eating too much sugar might impact health. So, food manufacturers have had to get creative.
Added sugars — more correctly called hidden sugars — are now given cryptic names to throw shoppers off their sweet scent.
These are some (but certainly not all) of the terms you might see for hidden sugars:
brown rice syrup
cane juice crystals
coconut blossom extract
evaporated cane juice
fruit juice concentrate
high fructose corn syrup
No one can be expected to remember all those names — that’s why food manufacturers use so many terms. And new ones get added to the backs of packs every year.
However, here are a couple of tips that will help:
If a word ends in “ose,” like glucose or fructose, it’s probably sugar.
If the word “syrup” or “sugar” appears, that’s sugar.
Totally avoiding added sugars is tough. One surefire way is to buy fresh ingredients whenever possible — fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, and the like.
Also, because added sugars are added during processing, if the food hasn’t been processed or is minimally processed, you’ll successfully swerve most of them.
An ongoing battle
Experts are clear that consuming too much added sugar is detrimental to health.
Yet food manufacturers know our sweet spot and continue to pump products full of irresistible, cryptically named sugars.
For instance, one study investigated the sugar content of 203 drinks explicitly marketed to children in the U.K. The authors found that, on average, they contained 17.5 grams of sugar (more than 4 teaspoons) per cup.
More than 40% of the drinks contained 19 g of sugar (around 5 teaspoons) per serving — the entire maximum daily recommended amount for children.
It’s clear that food manufacturers don’t care about children's health, so they certainly don’t care about yours.
Try to see past the design on the label — even if it says “natural,” or “organic,” or has pictures of a farmhouse or smiling children — check the ingredients.
Although many countries have tried “sugar taxes,” in most places, food manufacturers have free rein when it comes to added sugars. When there are regulations, they tend to be weak.
In short, the industry has largely been left to regulate itself. As one paper puts it, this allows the “fox to guard the hen house.”
Food manufacturers are dead against sugar taxes and similar interventions — they would eat into profits, after all.
When pushing against reforms, they often fall back on arguments based on personal freedom and the excesses of the “nanny state.”
So, use your personal freedom, and reduce your added sugar intake where you can. With ZOE, no food is off the table, but some foods are best enjoyed just once in a while.
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