Determining the Sugar content in Confusing Food Labels

The problem with Food Labels

The Nutrition Facts Food Label can be a great tool for finding hidden sugars in most foods, but they are also very confusing.   Food labels don't always tell the whole story because they lump naturally occurring sugars and added sugars together.  So, how can you tell how much added sugar is in a product?

Dairy Labels:

Nothing can be more confusing than the yogurt aisle.  In fact, just today, I witnessed a lady throw up her arms in frustration at the sugar in yogurt, mumbled swear words at the yogurt, and left. I wanted to cradle her in my arms and tell her it was going to be okay.  I would have told her, that dairy has naturally occurring lactose,  just like fruit has naturally occurring fructose.

Less Sugar Naturally
Let’s take a look at this plain yogurt.  It has 8 grams of sugar per serving, but how much of it is naturally occurring lactose?  There’s no way to tell except to look at the ingredients:

Milk, cream, bacterial culture, skim milk powder, and protein concentrate 

There’s no sugar listed, which means this yogurt has no added sugar!  The 8 grams is all naturally occurring lactose.

Compare that to the vanilla flavor and you will notice that sugar is listed third in the ingredients.  The food label shows 20 grams of sugar.   This means the Vanilla flavor has 12 more grams of added sugar than the plain!  No one can tell this though from just reading the Vanilla yogurt label.

To add to the confusion, most yogurt today are sweetened with artificial sweeteners, so the sugar content can be very hard to decipher.  The solution is to stick with a good plain yogurt and sweeten it yourself with stevia, fruit or a tiny bit of honey.

Now, next time you go to the grocery store, I dare you to start reading yogurt labels.  I guarantee you will want to tear your hair out and run away too.

Canned fruit

Most canned fruit has added syrup or “juice”.  I was excited when I saw that Del Monte has a No-Sugar-Added canned fruit, but listed in the ingredients:  Sucralose.  Ugh!  Again, there really is no way to tell what is naturally occurring fructose and what is added sugar in any of these cans.  Looks like we're all better off eating real fruit. That ain’t so bad!

Fruit Preserves and Jams

If you’ve ever made regular jam you’ll know that it’s made with cups and cups of sugar.  Regular jam has about 11 grams of sugar per tbsp.  Think about this!  A tablespoon of sugar is 12 grams of sugar!
Unless you've made your own sugar-free jam (and done the math), there's just no way the average consumer will know what is naturally occurring fructose and how much is added sugar.

Less Sugar NaturallyNo sugar added jam can be very misleading.  This brand has the following ingredients: Strawberries, concentrated grape juice, natural fruit pectin, and lemon juice.

Yet this jam still has 9 grams of sugar per tbsp!  Where is the sugar coming from?   Concentrated fruit juice is basically fructose calories without the important fiber. 

Other options I found was this E.D. Smith “More Fruit” Jam.  This jam only has 6 grams of sugar per tbsp.  The ingredients are listed as: Strawberries, sugar, water, fruit pectin, concentrated lemon juice, citric acid, locust bean gum and/or guar gum , natural flavour, sodium benzoate, and colour.  Smucker’s has their version called Double Fruit.  It has 8 grams of sugar and it’s ingredients are: strawberries, sugar, water, pectin, guar gum, citric acid, potassium sorbate and colour.  Reading all those ingredients makes me want to go back to the sugary jam.

Less Sugar Naturally
Here's something you can feel good about...Unsweetened Applesauce.  The label says, it has 13 grams of sugar per 2/3 of a cup. That’s just over 1 gram per tbsp.  Not bad!

The fact that the ingredients list only apples shows that the 13 grams is fructose is from the whole fruit.  See…that one was simple!

Less Sugar Naturally
In contrast, let’s look at this apple butter.

Apple butter is very concentrated applesauce and usually boasts having no added sugar on the label.  But when we read the ingredients, we see that “fruit juice” is listed first.  The ingredients are: apple juice, applesauce and baking soda .

The website describes the process, saying about the apples: “Some are pressed into fresh apple cider, others are wholly steamed and cooked”.  The label has 9 grams of sugar listed.  The website says, it has “11g of naturally occurring sugar”.

Like with the jam, sometimes you just have to read the ingredients, do a bit of research and go with your gut.  Personally, I don’t use jam and apple butter as a topping. It just has too much sugar.


These are just a few examples to illustrate the problem with reading the Nutrition Facts label.   This problem will come up in ice cream, tomato products, flavored dairy products, and anything that has dried fruit added to it.

Some people don’t consume any lactose or fructose outside of whole fruits…..all they look for is 0
Sugar listed on the food label.  For the rest of us, the key is reading the ingredients, deciding what you feel comfortable consuming and in most cases, buying “plain” and adding your own sweeteners at home.

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