Confused about sugar? We hear a lot about the importance of reducing our sugar content, but the messages are mixed about exactly how to do that. Which sweeteners are good and which are bad? Which sugar sources are actually okay and how much is too much?
First things first - sizing up low sugar snacks and snack bars starts with the food packaging and marketing messages on labels. These are the first things people see at the grocery store, not the nutrition facts. Food labels can be misleading. Period. You need to be educated on how to read the nutritional facts and ingredients to size up the food properly. Companies use phrases like low sugar, sugar-free, no sugar added, and natural sugar on the front of their packages to entice buyers who may want to limit or eliminate sugar from their diets. Some of those phrases may suggest that these products are good for you, but that's not always true.
To determine how to decode the label, you need to understand the benchmarks you should be judging them against. You also need to understand what the ingredients actually are. So, let's start there. What is sugar? What are sugar substitutes? How much sugar is too much sugar in a day? We need to understand these factors to make an informed decision about a product’s sugar content when reading nutrition labels.
There are two types of sugar found in our food – naturally-occurring sugars and sugars that are added to foods. The American Heart Association defines them as such:
- Naturally occurring sugars are typically found in foods such as fruit, in the form of fructose, and in milk, in the form of lactose.
- Added sugars are any type of sugar or sweetener that is added to food as it is processed or prepared. Added sugars may include natural sugars like white sugar, brown sugar, or honey. However, they can also include chemically manufactured sugars like high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, and artificial sweeteners.
The American Heart Association has set some simple guidelines to follow for daily sugar intake. Many people try to limit sugar even more than this recommendation suggests.
- Women: No more than 100 calories per day OR 6 teaspoons of sugar (37.5 grams).
- Men: No more than 150 calories per day OR 9 teaspoons of sugar (25 grams).
Sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols (which we breakdown a bit later) are dominating a lot of the low sugar conversation these days. Frankly, there's a lot to be confused about here. There are a few general rules on the additives or replacement sugars. In general,
- Natural sugars like monk fruit, stevia, coconut sugar, and real fruit are GOOD as long as you don't consume too much.
- Sugar alcohols like Xylitol, Erythritol, Lactitol, Sorbitol, and Maltitol are used to replace sugar, but still, have calories and are OK.
- Artificial sweeteners like Saccharin and Sucralose, are typically zero calories, and the recommendation is to say NO.
It's always best to opt for foods with natural sugars versus foods with processed or added sugars, but foods with natural sugars should not be over-consumed either. Overconsumption of any type of sugar has been linked to several health issues including weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and an increase of heart disease. Artificial sweeteners offer the flavor of sweetness to foods without the calories of other added sugars.
Sugar alcohols have gained popularity recently, especially with the rise of the Keto diet. According to Healthline, sugar alcohols are popular low-calorie sweeteners but are not considered a sugar substitute. It is important to note that even though they are called 'sugar alcohols' there is no alcohol in them. Sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the body during the digestive process, which limits their impact on blood sugar and the body's calorie consumption. On average, it is recommended you stay below 30 grams of sugar alcohols a day.
More recently, erythritol has seemingly become labeled the 'best' sugar alcohol and for a good reason. According to Livestrong, "Erythritol is a sugar substitute that looks and tastes like sugar, yet has almost no calories. It is available in both granulated and powdered forms… In small amounts, erythritol is not supposed to cause digestive upset and diarrhea that other sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol are known to cause, because erythritol is a smaller molecule and 90 percent of erythritol is absorbed in the small intestine and excreted for the most part unchanged in urine." Other sugar alcohols found in food are Xylitol, Lactitol, Sorbitol, and Maltitol, as mentioned above. Erythritol also does not appear to have any impact on blood sugar, giving it a zero glycemic index.
In 2016 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a new Nutrition Facts Label that companies will be required to comply with by 2020 (if they have more than $10 million in sales a year) and in 2021 (if they have less than $10 million in sales a year). Some companies have already adhered to the new request and have launched the label on their products. According to the FDA, this new label was designed and approved because of scientific research that directly links chronic diseases, like heart disease and obesity, to a person's diet. According to Business Insider, "Nutrition labels aren't currently required to differentiate between naturally occurring and added sugars in products. But by 2021, all food labels in the US will be redesigned to note added sugars, so you'll eventually be able to see how much white sugar, honey, caramel, corn syrup, and other sweeteners are mixed in."
One study showed that the average American is consuming around 3x the suggested amount of added sugar in a single day. Healthline has identified more than 11 health issues that arise from overeating sugar, including obesity and an increased risk of several chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. So a new, regulated, and more detailed nutritional label from the FDA could not come at a better time. We need it.
Now that we have a better understanding of what to look for, what to stay away from, and how much sugar to consume, we can properly size up how to choose a low sugar snack or low sugar snack bar. One thing to keep in mind when reading nutrition labels is to first look at the serving size and then the number of servings in the package. It's very easy to consume double the amount of any ingredient listed on the label if a package has two servings, you ate the entire package, and you didn't take the time to read it.
To consider a snack 'low sugar' or a snack bar 'low sugar,' you need to look first at the number of grams of sugar per serving. Remember, women should not have more than 37.5 grams of sugar in a day and men no more than 25 grams. If a snack or snack bar has 12 grams of sugar per serving, even if the whole package was a serving size, that snack or snack bar would be almost one-third of a woman's daily sugar intake and nearly half of a man's. Targeting snacks and snack bars that are less than 5 grams on average, per serving would be considered low sugar.
In addition to the actual sugar content, keep an eye on the sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners when sizing up the snacks and snack bars. Since sugar alcohols do have calories, you'll want to watch how much you're eating in a day, as those snacks may be high in fat and total calories. Besides, some sugar alcohols can lead to diarrhea, bloating, and cramping in some people so it’s important to note those regardless. And with the new FDA mandated nutrition label, it will be more accessible than ever before to find and identify the added sugars and artificial sweeteners in snacks and snack bars.
Fortunately, there are many more healthy low sugar snack options available today. Chocolate dipped Truth Bars, for example, have between 2 and 5 grams of sugar in each bar, making them a great low sugar bar option.