Making decisions at the grocery store can be challenging when it comes to understanding food labels that read fat-free, no sugar added or sugar-free and hormone-free.
There are dozens of misleading claims hiding on our grocery store shelves. Take fat-free creamer. Yes, it’s fat-free, but to compensate for lack of flavour, sugar or sugar substitutes are added.
The same for sugar-free items. Fat is added to compensate for lack of sugar like sugar-free Oreos. A regular Oreo has 2 grams of fat, but a sugar-free Oreo has 5 grams of fat.
“No sugar added” food labels doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no sugar present, University of Toronto researchers say.
Do claims of “no sugar added” and “reduced in sugar” on labels on packaged food and beverage products really mean you’re getting a healthier alternative?
Not so much, researchers at the University of Toronto say. In fact, they may not actually have “notable reductions” in calories, and some may even contain sugar amounts that are considered “excess” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Overall, we found that products with sugar claims were healthier and lower in free sugars, but we also saw examples of products with sugar claims that may conflict with what we know of consumer expectations,” Jodi Bernstein, lead author and PhD student in the department of nutritional sciences, says.
“For example, products with a reduced in sugar claim may not have similar reductions in calories and ‘no added sugar’ claims may be found on products that are high in sugars – contrary to what consumer may expect.”
“Free sugars are the sugars, syrups and fruit juices that have been removed from their naturally occurring sources of whole fruits, vegetables, dairy products and some grains,” Bernstein explained.
“And once removed, these sugars are ‘free’ to be consumed in large quantities and added into foods.”
That can lead people to eat more of them, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.
Upon looking closer, the research team found that almost half of the products examined (48 per cent) had excess free sugar levels.
This, Bernstein says, means they had free sugar levels higher than those recommended by WHO – which is a maximum of 10 per cent of calories consumed.
“A ‘no sugar added’ claim means that no sugar has been ‘added,’ but that doesn’t mean the product wasn’t high in sugars in the first place,” Bernstein clarifies. “Although fruit juice is considered a free sugar, it doesn’t fall under the Canadian definition of an ‘added sugar.’”
According to the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations, labels on food products must “be accurate, truthful and not misleading.” Yet, under these same regulations, fruit juices are commonly considered a fruit ingredient and not a sweetener, researchers say.
So in this case, fruit drinks or fruit juice products may still come with a “no sugar added” claim even if they contain excess free sugar.
The researchers found excess free sugar in 15 of the 16 fruit preserves and all of the 234 fruit juices and juice drinks they looked at that came with “no sugar added claims.”
In total, Bernstein and her team looked at over 3,000 products including puddings, yogurts, cereals, fruit drinks, salad dressings and sweet condiments; 635 of those products had at least one sugar claim.
“Canadians are increasingly trying to limit the amount of sugars they eat and only a couple years ago the WHO emerged with guidelines recommending intakes of sugars be limited to reduce the risk of chronic diseases associated with eating too much sugars,” Bernstein says.
“It is particularly important that the tools consumers have available to them on the food label, like sugar claims, help guide them to healthier choices that are lower in sugars.”
Bernstein hopes that consumers recognize the limitations of these claims when choosing pre-packaged foods and beverages.
“Just because a product has a sugar claim doesn’t automatically mean it’s a healthier choice,” she warns.
An earlier study published in March by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came to similar conclusions with no sugar, low-sodium, non-fat and low-fat claims.
According to researchers, these claims rarely match the actual nutritional quality of the food and would often have a worse nutritional profile than those without such claims.
Whole foods a better approach
Vancouver-based registered dietitian Lindsay Pleskot, who is not affiliated with the research, agreed that claims about “added sugar” and “reduced sugar” can be confusing or misleading for consumers.
‘Just because a product has a sugar claim or fat claim or sodium claim, doesn’t mean it’s automatically a healthier choice,’ says the study’s lead author, registered dietitian and PhD candidate Jodi Bernstein. (Jodi Bernstein)
For people struggling to navigate labelling on packaged foods, Pleskot suggested opting for more whole foods — single-ingredient foods like vegetables and fruit — and eating at home more often.
“This way they don’t need to worry about being a detective and having to scrutinize packaging,” she said.
Pleskot praised the research, saying the findings could be helpful in influencing policy.
That’s Bernstein’s hope as well. She said regulations could be improved to ensure the claims are meeting consumers’ perceptions, and to make sure they’re found on foods that are low in sugars and lower in calories and meet overall health criteria.
But in the end, it comes down to what happens in the grocery store.
“Consumers can try to think critically when they see a sugar claim and consider, ‘What is the claim really saying?'” Bernstein said.
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