The Harvard School of Public Health identifies 23 different names for added sugar on food labels.
The consumer advocacy site Consumerist calls them ‘code words’, and names 30 of them. Robert Lustig raised the number to 56 in his current bestseller Sugar Has 56 Names, and the American Institute for Cancer Research puts the total closer to 100.
All the synonyms, euphemisms, and turns of the phrase make it difficult to figure out just how much sweetener is in there. And that’s no accident.
Food manufacturers are required to label a product’s ingredients in descending order by weight.
The most abundant ingredient is listed first, the next appears second, and so on. Manufacturers have figured out that if they spread the total amount of sugar among several different sweeteners instead of using just one type, each of the sugars is weighed separately. A whopping dose of added sugar might be the number one ingredient, but it could show up far down the list divvied up between fructose, glucose, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. Strictly speaking, they’re all different additives, but sugar is sugar is sugar.
Sugar assumes many guises.
Some of the tip-offs are ingredients ending with -ose, most syrups, and anything with malt in its name. It can come from sugar cane, corn, beets, coconut, dates, and a slew of grains and fruits. Commonly used forms that can be tricky to identify include dextrose, dextrin, maltodextrin, glucose solids, maltose, galactose, diastatic malt, molasses, sorghum, cane juice, cane crystals, barley malt, brown rice syrup, turbinado, demerara, muscovado, rice bran syrup, agave, panocha, ethyl malto, sucanat, rapadura, panela, and jaggery.
Consumer groups have pressured the FDA to close the labeling loophole by creating a single line for ‘added sugars.’ Until then, the major ingredient on nutrition labels is confusion. You need to be a chemist, a detective, and a mathematician to hunt down all the sugars, add them all up, and turn them into information in a form that you can use to make educated decisions about diet and nutrition.
The USDA Supertracker analyzes the nutritional content of just about every product sold in U.S. supermarkets.
Its database is unavailable during the government shutdown but will become available again when our country comes to its senses.