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How to decipher sugar content on food labels

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By Barbara Quinn
The Monterey County Herald
Do you know what all the food label terms for sugar mean?
All the terms you find on a food label are strictly defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Sugar-free" means the food contains less than 0.5 grams (about 1/8 teaspoon) of sugar per serving, a negligible amount. This definition also applies to terms such as "no sugar," "sugarless" or "zero sugar," the FDA says.
For example, the sugar-free iced tea I just mixed up with some sliced lemons and mint leaves contains no sugar according to the Nutrition Facts label, even though there is a "trivial amount of sugar" from added corn syrup solids.
It can still be labeled "sugar-free," however, because each serving contains less than a 0.5 grams of sugar.
"Reduced sugar" can be claimed for a food that has at least 25 percent less sugar than its original form. For instance, one (8 oz.) cup of Tree Top Reduced Sugar Grape Juice Blend contains 18 grams of sugars (about 4 teaspoons) compared to 26 grams (about 6 teaspoons) in their Vineyard Grape Juice Blend.
"No added sugars" means no sugar-type ingredient has been added to the food. Plain yogurt with no fruit or added source of sugar, for example, can be labeled "no added sugars." But it is not sugar-free because it contains the natural sugar from milk: lactose.
"Sugar alcohols" are a form of sugar and not alcohol in the intoxicating sense. Because they are poorly digested, they provide about half the calories and a smaller impact on blood sugars than regular sugar.
Examples of sugar alcohols (aka "polyols") include xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol and isomalt.
And here are a couple of other interesting facts about labels on sugar-containing foods:
"Low sugar" is not a defined term by the FDA and as such "may not be used" on food labels.
And the term "sugar" has a different definition than "sugars," according to the FDA. "Sugar" specifically means sucrose (table sugar) that is half glucose and half fructose.
"Sugars" includes all sugars, including lactose in milk, fructose in fruit, and honey and corn syrups.
For example, the first ingredient in the brownie mix I suddenly got an urge to bake is "sugar" (sucrose). And the nutrition label on this product informs me there are 16 grams of sugars (plural) in one brownie, which include sugar (sucrose) as well as corn syrup.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at
Story tags » Nutrition

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