4 Things to Know About Sugar-Free Labels

sugar on a teaspoon isolated on white background

Move over, gluten. It’s still early, but I’m predicting that sugars will earn the top spot for hottest nutrition topic of 2014. There are controversial cupcake bans in schools, popular diet books and films promoting sugar-free challenges and a flurry of science that continues to connect the dots between sugar consumption and health. Plus, the latest National Survey indicates Americans are consuming far more empty calories from hidden sugars in our diet than is conducive to optimal health.

As a result, “sugar free” claims are popping up everywhere, from food packaging to foodie blogs, restaurant menus and on social media. But there’s an important catch. In reality, sugar-free has many different meanings in the marketplace and it can be sticky business to decipher it.

Here’s a primer on four things that will keep you from getting sweet-talked when trying to sift through the maze of sugar-free claims.

  • Sugar-Free by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The Nutrition Facts Panel on the side of every packaged item is a key partner in helping you determine whether the product you’re buying is truly sugar-free. For packaged food and drinks traditionally bought at a grocery store, the rules governing sugar-free are clearly defined. According to the FDA, “Sugar-Free” means less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving on the Nutrition Facts Panel, and “contains no ingredient that is a sugar or generally understood to contain sugars.” You can also check the ingredient list and see if any sugars, sweeteners, sugar alcohols or zero calorie sweeteners are listed. The statements “No Added Sugars” and “Without Added Sugars” are only allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient is added during processing.

  • Sugar-Free vs. Naturally Occurring Sugars

Most of the pushback against sugar by health experts and leading health organizations has to do overwhelmingly with the enormous amount of added sugars that are found in processed foods and beverages, not those that are naturally occurring in whole foods. Many nourishing, whole foods such as fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains and dairy products have no added sugars, yet are still not technically sugar-free because they contain naturally occurring sugars. Knowing this difference is critical to help you prioritize where to start scaling back on sugar and will help you get the most out of a food label.

For instance, a 5.3-ounce container of tart-tasting plain Greek yogurt contains zero added sugars, but does contains 4 grams of naturally occurring sugars (lactose) in the milk itself, which appears on the Nutrition Facts Panel. A package of 100% Rolled Oats lists one gram of sugar per serving on it’s food label, but these are naturally occurring in the whole oats themselves. I have seen many clients put these kinds of healthy, whole foods back on the shelf fearing that they aren’t sugar-free. To clear up this confusion, the FDA has proposed a Nutrition Facts Panel update in 2015 that would separate added sugars from naturally occurring sugars on the food label, making it easier for consumers to see the contribution of each.

  • Sugar-Free That Still Tastes Sweet

Thousands of beverages, desserts, food products and online recipes that say they are sugar-free still deliver an intensely sweet taste experience. These types of products are technically sugar-free but still lean on ingredients such as artificial sweeteners, all natural zero calorie sweeteners (such as monk fruit or stevia), or sugar alcohols (like malitol, sorbitol and erithyrol) to deliver their signature sweetness. The question is, did you bargain for that sweet surprise, or are you trying to pull back from sweet taste all together? While this is still an area of intense debate and research, many on the leading edge of functional medicine believe that these types of ingredients still drive an intensely sweet palate, and may still interact with our biology by changing insulin response, hunger and satiety hormones, the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, and more. Whatever decision you make, it’s one more reason to check the fine print (and the ingredient list) when you see the sugar-free claim on the label.

  • Sugar-Free That Really Means No White Sugar

Does making a batch of homemade energy bars with honey instead of white sugar mean they’re “sugar-free? Not exactly. Many well-meaning people mistakenly use the term sugar-free to describe recipes, foods or beverages that don’t contain any added white sugar. I have seen this everywhere from cookbooks, recipe websites and social media hashtags. I’ve even seen it at bake sales at my children’s school. Even all-natural sweeteners such as honey, agave, fruit puree, maple syrup or fruit juice concentrate are still technically added sugars. Rather than being sugar-free, a more accurate description would be to say that these foods and beverages are simply made without any added white sugar.

The national conversation on sugar is important to our health, but can be confusing when you’re out shopping or cooking. Take your time, read recipes thoroughly and check your food labels to make sure you understand what sugar-free really means.