Almost everybody likes sweet things, and certainly sugar seems to be in everything. So how do you correctly read labels when it comes to sugar? What's a good sugar versus a not so ideal sugar?
There are three main sugar claims that you may find on food labels:
When you see "sugar-free" on a product label, it means that the food contains less than a half of a gram of sugar per serving size. This includes any type of sugar that could be found in the food. Obviously, the white stuff counts toward the total. So does maple syrup and honey. Naturally-occurring sugars count too, like lactose in milk or fructose in fruits.
Sugarless alternative sweeteners won't contribute to the total sugar in a product. Those are allowed under a sugar-free label.
The term "sugar-free" is regulated, so if an item says it's sugar free, you can be pretty confident that it contains less than half a gram of sugar per serving.
If you're aiming to stay under that half a gram (or one gram, or whatever your limit is), you'll want to watch your serving sizes. Some products have tiny serving sizes on the label, when typical consumption is much larger. It adds up.
No Sugar Added
"No sugar added" means that no sugar ingredients are added during the processing of foods, including sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
That doesn't mean you end up with a product containing zero grams of sugar. For example, a banana could bear a "no sugar added" label, but it actually contains around 14g of naturally-occurring sugar.
It also doesn't mean sweet foods with "no sugar added" are automatically suspect.
An unsweetened food is one that hasn't been sweetened at all – no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, no natural sweeteners, no zero-calorie sweeteners, nothing that adds to the sweetness of the recipe.
Sneaky Sugar Labeling
Look out for these!
"Sugar-free," "unsweetened," and "no sugar added" don't tell the full story. If you want real information about what's in your food, you should be reading labels.
The Sugar Science department at UCSF lists 61 different names for sugar. Here we go: