Today's post is about an increasingly common labeling trick that makes food look like it contains less sugar than it really does.
Everybody knows that if you want to see what's in the food you buy in the grocery store, all you have to do is check the ingredients list. All foods are required to list all their ingredients, ranked by prevalence, somewhere on the label.
Therefore, if you want to get a rough sense of how much high fructose corn syrup is in your breakfast cereal, or how much sugar is in your pasta sauce, all you have to do is glance at the ingredients. If sugar or HFCS is one of the top three or four ingredients on the list, then you can safely roll your eyes and put the product back on the shelf. It's an easy decision-making method for consumers who don't want to eat over-sweetened food.
Or is it?
Unfortunately, a quick glance just isn't enough any more, because many food companies have caught on to us. They know that we've all trained ourselves to scan the ingredients and make sure sugar and high fructose corn syrup aren't near the top of the list.
So they've arrived at an insidious workaround that subverts our quick glances, and often leads consumers to underestimate the sugar content of a food. How? By using three, four or even five different kinds of sugar in the food, and listing each sweetener separately.
Thus a sugar-heavy cereal that years ago might have listed sugar as the second ingredient may now be made with sugar, brown sugar, molasses, dextrose and corn syrup solids. And those ingredients may be listed as the sixth, seventh, ninth, tenth and twelfth ingredients, respectively. Here's the insidious part: the sugar/sweetener content is higher than ever, but sugar now appears sixth instead of second on the list. And the consumer, who quickly glanced and didn't see sugar among the top three ingredients, is misled into thinking that this food has less sugar than it really does.
How can you protect yourself from being misled? Here are three tips:
1) First, you'll have to read ingredients lists a lot more closely than you did in the past. There's just no way around it.
2) Second, be on the lookout for the following ingredients--any of them can be used in addition to, or as a substitute for, plain old sugar:
juice concentrates (these are typically fructose- and glucose-heavy)
brown rice syrup
high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS for short)
corn syrup (an often-used alternate name for HFCS)
corn syrup solids (HFCS in powder or crystalline form)
dextrose (a form of glucose, also a sweetener)
maltodextrin (another sweetener, made up of a chain of glucose molecules)
[A brief word on the last two items on this list, dextrose and maltodextrin. Despite having fancy names that don't sound sweet at all, these two variant forms of glucose are indeed sweeteners.]
3) Third, be aware that when you're looking at a list of ingredients with multiple sweetening agents, there simply isn't enough information for you to estimate the total sugar content of that food. However, a good rule of thumb is to assume that any food with three or more sweetening agents has an inappropriately high sugar content.
Finally, let the consumer products companies know that you won't use your wallet to support hyper-sweetened foods or misleading ingredient labeling. Of course it's one thing if you're buying cookies or candy--you'd expect to see sugar and its variants prominently (and repeatedly) listed in the ingredients.
But if you see this labeling technique used with cereal, pasta sauce, prepared dinners or any other food that really shouldn't contain tooth-aching quantities of sugar, punish that brand immediately. Put the product back on the shelf, shake your head at the shortsightedness of the processed food industry, and slowly walk away.
Why You Should Always Read Ingredient Labels
Just Say No to Overpriced Boxed Cereal
How to Enjoy Wine On A Budget
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs
This post owes a debt of gratitude to David Kessler's The End of Overeating, which got me started thinking about this issue.
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