Is sugar really hidden?

With all the headlines and TV shows around at the moment focussing on sugar and how we are consuming too much, one phrase I hear regularly is “hidden sugars” and how our food is “full of it”!

Having been involved in writing the information that must be shown on labels (otherwise known as pack copy) since my first job in the food industry some 18 years ago, this phrase really makes me sigh. By law all ingredients must be labelled – and that includes anything added that is deemed to be sugars, so it most definitely cannot be “hidden”.

Not only that, but one of the fundamentals of food labelling is that it “must not be misleading”, and I have been fortunate over the years to work with teams of labelling technologists who share my passion in making sure labelling is done with the consumer in mind. I can recall many hours deliberating over aspects of labelling information with such individuals, and then we still have to keep the marketeers in check to make sure they don’t get carried away with what I affectionately call “marketing fluff”! So, is it any wonder why we get upset when the media accuse the food industry of misleading and hiding things?

It seems that there is an overall lack of understanding amongst consumers as to what is actually classed as ‘free sugars’. As always, education plays a huge part because you can put all the information possible on a food pack, but it is useless if it is ignored or not understood.

The official definition of free sugars is, all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. Under this definition lactose, when naturally present in milk and milk products is excluded.

So how do we educate consumers to enable them to choose foods ain order to meet the new dietary recommendation – of which free sugars should not exceed 5% (population average) of total dietary energy?

Firstly, consumers need to understand which foods generally contribute the most free sugars in the diet – so that they can choose to limit or reduce the amount and frequency by which they consume them. These foods include chocolate and sweets, cakes and biscuits and of course sugar-sweetened drinks.

Secondly, they need to understand the names of different types of free sugars so they can look out for them in the ingredients list on pack, and because the order is in descending order by weight, if a type of sugar appears near the beginning of the ingredients list, the product is likely to have more free sugars than one in which any sugars are at the end. Some common names for those added to foods are sucrose, glucose, molasses, dextrose, honey, invert sugar, treacle, glucose syrup and maltose.

There has also been a lot of discussion lately about how we can improve the labelling of free sugars to make it easier for consumers to meet the new maximum sugar intake recommendations. Currently, under EU law, sugar labelling shows the total sugar content – this includes both the free sugars and naturally occurring sugars, and from December it will be mandatory to include this information on the back of most packaged foods and drinks. The UK Government has also confirmed that it will introduce clearer visual labelling (such as teaspoons of sugar) to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink – though this will be voluntary. The government has even indicated that Brexit will provide “greater flexibility” in relation to front-of-pack nutrition information.

So, in the meantime, I urge everyone to use the information on pack that labelling experts like me have worked so hard to provide. If you need some inspiration to help you cut back on those free sugars how about making some of these little changes to your diet:

Use fruit such as raisins, dried apricots, dates or bananas instead of sugar, which naturally add sweetness to breakfast cereals and plain yogurt.

Sweet-tasting, spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger are a great way of adding flavour when preparing foods at home.

Try just a thin layer of jam or marmalade on wholegrain toast.

Swap sugar-sweetened beverages to sugar free drinks or better still water, tea or coffee (without adding sugar!).

 

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