Ask Emma

In ‘Ask Emma’ our Dietitian Emma Little 
answers your questions on matters of 
diet and food. Send your questions to 'Ask Emma'.  Read more about Emma here.
Q:  What is good sugar and bad sugar? What should we look for on food labels to help decide?

A:   Reading labels can be confusing if you don't know what to look out for.

When we are looking for sugar content, we look at total carbohydrate, including ‘of which is sugars’, found on the nutritional information panel on the back of the pack. We also look to ‘total sugars per serving’ on the front of the pack. The drawback is, neither tells us how much is added sugar (undesirable in excess) and what is naturally occurring sugar (acceptable).

To find out how much sugar has been added, we look to the ‘Ingredients List’ on the pack, which lists the ingredients in descending order of quantity in the product. So, if "sugar" is listed as the first to third ingredient, that product is generally high in added sugars and therefore not a very healthy choice.

There are exceptions to this rule and we need to look at the product as a whole.

For example Belvita biscuits and Nairn's sweet oat biscuits which do contain added sugars, also contain majority whole grain oats (labelled first) which makes these options better (high fibre) sweet choices than a rich tea biscuit or a chocolate chip biscuit.

Fruit contains naturally occurring fruit sugars, so a healthy product containing fruit (for example a Nakd bar), may have a large amount of ‘sugars’, but is still a perfectly healthy snack choice. Read those ingredients - nothing but fruit, nuts and the odd bit of natural flavour. No added sugars.

The traffic light system of food labelling depicts a macronutrient highlighted in green if the product contains acceptable or low amounts of that macronutrient per 100g. Amber means the product contains a moderate amount of that nutrient. Red means the product is high in that category.

Anything considered high in sugars contains more than 15g/100g sugars (red), less than 5g/100g is low in sugars (green). Again, nutrition labels do not often differentiate between what is added or naturally occurring sugar, so do not use this guideline in isolation when looking at a products nutritional information.

Some other words meaning sugar to watch out for in an ingredients list include: anything ending with "-ose", such as glucose or maltose; syrup, maltodextrin, invert sugar are also simply sugar.

So, to determine if our choice of food or snack is a healthy (or a healthier) choice, we need to know:

  • What's on the ingredient list?
  • Where does that sugar come from (naturally occurring or added)?
  • Does the nutritional information panel tell us how much is added sugar?
  • Does the product as a whole contain a good proportion of other healthy ingredients such as wholegrains?

Now your task...go out and read labels!


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