How To Read Sugar Labels (And Cut Back On Your Intake)

 Sugar. In small doses it can be the good guy (when all you want is chocolate) but most times it's the bad guy, especially when we consider how omnipresent it is -- even in foods you wouldn't expect.

“What’s interesting about sugar is, when you stand back for a minute, you see how invasive it actually is,” qualified nutritionist Michele Chevalley Hedge told The Huffington Post Australia.

“These days it’s everywhere -- in virtually every packaged food.”

It seems almost impossible to avoid sugar, with everyday foods like bread, barbecue sauce, salad dressings, muesli bars, and instant porridge potentially full of hidden sugars.

The World Health Organisation recommends six teaspoons of added sugar per day -- so while we don't need to avoid sugar completely, we do need to make sure our intake is below this. Excessive sugar intake can lead to a range of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Knowing this is all well and good, but when it comes time to finding food products that don’t contain an excess of sugar, it can feel overwhelming -- especially when the labels have been created in a way to misdirect you. But there’s good news. These useful tips will help you read those confusing and misleading nutritional labels to make sure you know exactly how much sugar you’re potentially about to eat.

1. Check the ingredients list “I would be checking the ingredients list to see what the food is mostly made up of,” accredited practicing dietician Chloe McLeod told HuffPost Australia. “Whatever is the first ingredient is what the food is made up of most.” “So let’s say the first ingredient in a muesli bar is rolled oats -- that means the main ingredient in rolled oats. Whatever the last ingredient is what it’s made up of least,” McLeod said. Hedge agrees that this is one of the best ways to read the sugar content. “If sugar appears in the first five ingredients, that should send a little warning,” Hedge said.

2. Look at the overall sugar content To help figure out how much sugar is in a product generally (or when comparing a few similar products) look at the nutritional information and focus on the “Per 100g” column. “If you check the per 100 grams column, we should aim for less than 20 grams if the product has fruit in it, or 10 grams if there isn’t fruit,” McLeod said.

3. Be good at dividing To find out how many teaspoons of sugar there are in a food product -- and to help you keep track of your six teaspoons daily tally -- Hedge recommends doing a bit of maths. “Go to the sugar gram column and divide by the number four,” Hedge said. Doing this division means you will be able to visualise the sugar content much better (and consequently, discourage you from consuming a high-sugar product). “It’s not an exact science because sometimes products will have sugars like lactose (which is a milk sugar) -- however, it’s good enough for people to get an idea of how much sugar might be in that product." A perfect example would be a can of Coca Cola. “If you’re looking at the sugar grams on that, it’s 40 grams, which is around 10 teaspoons of sugar. And then you have to ask yourself, would you fill that can up with water and 10 teaspoons of sugar and drink it or give it to your child?”

4. Put the package aside and pick whole foods instead “Staying below that six recommended teaspoons is very easily achievable for people who are eating lots of fresh, natural, and unprocessed foods and not worrying so much about food that’s coming from a packet,” McLeod said. Hedge agrees. “What we really want to do is move to a balanced diet,” Hedge said. “When we’re having a balanced diet of protein, complex carbohydrates, and good fats, it’s really hard to be on a sugar overload.”

5. Look at the servings size “It can also be useful to check 'Per Serving' and see how much there is in the serve -- maybe it is less than 20 grams per 100 grams, but if the food is 50 grams, it still might have a considerable portion being sugar," McLeod said. "And then compare that to your recommended six teaspoons per day,” McLeod said. Don't worry -- the serving size confusion isn't a fault of our own, at all. “Manufacturers are very good at giving a tiny, tiny serving size when it’s high in sugar,” Hedge said. For example, the recommended serving size for a packet of lollies might be three lollies -- so the sugar content won’t appear to be very high. However, if you’re eating a few handfuls, you probably won’t be aware of how much sugar you’re truly eating.

To give you an idea of these misleading (and ridiculously small) serving sizes, take a look at the recommended portion for these popular snacks.

  • 25 grams of Kettle Sea Salt & Vinegar Chips
  • 25 grams of Barbecue Shapes
  • 35 grams of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes 25 grams (1/2 cup)
  • 1 Tim Tam

Seriously, who has the self-control to eat one Tim Tam? The crux of the matter is the importance of being a wary shopper (and eater) to make sure your sugar intake is below the recommended dose. “Keep it really simple,” Hedge said. “ If you're not having whole foods, become a label reader.”

Article by Juliette Steen, Associate Editor - Food, HuffPost Australia, HuffPost Australia.

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