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How to Spot Added Sugars

It’s all in the wording

Evaporated cane juice is just plain sugar, says the FDA. (Don Johnson (Flickr/Creative Commons))
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If you’ve looked at a nutrition label lately, you may have spotted a “natural”-sounding ingredient: evaporated cane juice. It's commonly used in cookies, cereals and other sweet foods. But soon, writes Modern Farmer’s Dan Nosowitz, the term could disappear for good because of an FDA recommendation that food manufacturers use the word “sugar” instead.

In a lengthy guidance document, the FDA objects to the term “evaporated cane juice,” suggesting that it is misleading. The substance is neither in juice or cane form by the time it reaches consumers and is, in essence, plain sugar.

The agency’s recommendations, however, are nonbinding. And as Nosowitz explains, this presents a quandary. Companies can continue to use the phrase on packaging, he writes, “but if a lawsuit is brought, that company would be much more open to losing in court than before, as the FDA’s recommendation can be turned into an effective argument that the phrase is indeed misleading.”

That could affect food manufacturers’ ability to mask or downplay added sugar in food. Recent nutritional guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and the USDA recommend that people choose foods with fewer added sugars, and upcoming food label changes will list added sugars in addition to the levels of carbohydrates in foods.

Just how to label sugars has long been a source of controversy, with the FDA often weighing in and forcing companies to modify how they talk about (or hide) sugary foods on nutrition labels. In 2012, the agency denied the corn industry’s bid to rename high-fructose corn syrup “corn sugar” despite the fact that the product is liquid rather than crystallized. The same logic is at work in recent guidance on “evaporated cane juice,” which is crystallized and not liquid.

Cane sugar makes its way into foods via sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), a tall perennial grass that provides up to 70 percent of the world’s sugar. Primarily cultivated in the tropics, sugarcane uses the energy of the sun to produce large amounts of a carbohydrate called sucrose, which it stores inside its grassy stalk. (On the other hand, sugar beets store their sugars in their roots.) To extract sugar, stems of the cane are chopped down and crushed for their juice. The sugary liquid is then thickened into a syrup and crystallized in a series of evaporators. Cane sugar is then put through a series of refining processes to remove its color and reduce its size. The residual stalks, or bagasse, are used to fuel the evaporators. Associated with the slave trade of the 17th through the 19th centuries, sugar cane processing is still associated with unhealthy working conditions and low wages.

But sugar from cane and beets isn't the only way food is sweetened. Here are a few other sweet additives you might spot on a food label near you:

Maltodextrin

Like cane sugar, maltodextrin is derived from plants. But its sources, which include everything from wheat to the starches of potatoes, corn or rice, are more diverse. When water and enzymes are added to the starch in a process called partial hydrolysis, the starches become a sweet powder used in foods like energy drinks and some drugs.

High-fructose corn syrup

Corn starch can also be broken down into high-fructose corn syrup using acids and enzymes that convert its sugars into both glucose and fructose. The use of HFCS increased over 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990 and by the early 2000s it represented at least 40 percent of all added sweeteners in the American diet. It is primarily used to sweeten beverages, but can be found in cereal, condiments and even meat. HFCS is highly controversial, has sparked multiple multimillion dollar lobbying campaigns by both the corn industry and anti-sweetener groups, and has been linked to heart risks and obesity.

Other syrups and nectars

Maple sap, honey and agave nectar are also found in plenty of sweet foods. Derived from sources like xylem sap (maple syrup), nectar processed by bees (honey) and filtered agave juice (agave nectar), these sugars are all marketed as “healthier” alternatives to other processed forms of sugar. However, all contain sugars.

Even when sugars masquerade as other products, they are not chemically different from plain old sugar. Increased sugar intake has been linked to everything from diabetes to obesity, and between 1979 and 2000, Americans’ intake of added sugars increased by nearly five percent. Though sugar is often called by many other names—it still tastes (and acts) just as sweet.

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