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Your food label is tricking you into eating more sugar

Sarah Wilson is a NYT best-selling author, tv host and blogger whose journalism career has spanned 20 years across TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and online.

Almost four years ago I decided to quit sugar. I quit for two weeks and wrote about my experience in a newspaper column I was writing at the time. There was an enormous response and what started out as a new-year experiment became something more.

During my sugar-free life experiment I realized folks were oblivious to the amount of sugar they were consuming. It's a sugar minefield out there and manufacturers are using sneaky little tactics to trick you into eating the white stuff. Did you know there are 57 different names used to disguise sugar in products? Yep, 57; the devil is in the details.

This tactic has contributed to the overconsumption of sugar like never before.

The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons a day, and men no more than nine. But we're consuming on average approximately 130 pounds (59 kilograms) of sugar a year. (One hundred years ago we consumed one kilogram of sugar a year.) That's more than one kilogram a week and roughly 28 teaspoons of sugar a day. Way more than the recommended amount.

OK, so how does our food stack up?

  • A glass of fruit juice has 10 teaspoons of sugar. That's the same amount as a can of Coca-Cola.
  • Barbecue sauce has 4 teaspoons of sugar in one serving of sauce on your meal.
  • Low-fat yogurt (single serving) contains 6.5 teaspoons of sugar. Yep, it's shocking. When manufacturers remove the fat, they put sugar in to make up for the loss in flavor and texture.
  • A small packet of sultanas contains more sugar than the recommended daily intake for women, a total of 8 teaspoons of sugar.
  • Tomato pasta sauce shouldn't have sugar in it, right? Nope, it's a pretty big offender staking in at 10-12 teaspoons per serving. Just one meal pushes consumers over their daily recommended sugar intake.

So how do I work out how much sugar I'm eating?

Unlike Australia and UK, the nutrition labels in the U.S. don't have to state the amount of nutrients per 100g, which means you're going to have to dust off the brain cells and do some mental arithmetic in the supermarket.

Let's use this nutrition label to help show how to work out sugar intake.

It's just one tiny gram of sugar, right?

Wrong. And here’s why:

  1. Find the serving size. As you can see it's at the top of the nutrition label. In our example above the serving size is 2/3 cup or 55g.
  2. Find the amount of sugar in the product. It's listed under "Total Carbohydrate." As you can see there is one gram of sugar per serving for this product.
  3. Divide the sugar by the serving size (in grams), and then multiply by 100 to calculate the percentage of sugar in a product. Using our example, 1g/55g = .018, then multiply it by 100 = 1.81. This product has 2g of sugar per serving, which equates to half a teaspoon of sugar.

What’s the future of food labelling in the U.S.?

The FDA is about to review public comments on new proposed labeling regulations that could force manufacturers to disclaim how much sugar is added to their products.

However, it could be years before companies are legally obliged to update their labels.

Until then, keep your calculators at the ready.

Photo credit: YelenaYemchuk/iStock/360/Getty Images
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