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How to Read Nutrition Labels for Sugar

Switching to a low-sugar lifestyle begins with a better awareness of what you are eating each day. Sugar is in so many foods—even those you might consider to be healthy. Before you assume a particular food is low in sugar, make it a habit to check the nutrition label first. This is a snapshot of the hard facts you need to know, with detailed information on macronutrients— protein, carbs, and fat—as well as other important considerations, including sodium, vitamins, and, of course, sugar.

Where to Find the Nutrition Label

You’ll usually find the nutrition facts label on the side or back panel of a packaged food. Just under the “Nutrition Facts” header, you’ll find a breakdown of serving size and calories per serving. Pay attention to this first bit of information! So many people unintentionally consume more than the recommended serving size, which would make all of the information listed below it inaccurate and irrelevant. The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently updated the rules to create a new nutrition facts label. (It won't take effect until 2020, but many companies are already rolling out the new label designs.) One important change was to make serving sizes better reflect what people really eat. For example, a serving of ice cream used to be ½ cup, but will be ⅔ cup in the future.

On the left is what the old nutrition label looks like. On the right is the new nutrition label.

 Source: FDA

Why Added Sugar is on the New Nutrition Labels Facts and Sugar  

The label also divides nutritional information into the five major players—fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, and protein. Sugar is a kind of carbohydrate, so sugar content is listed underneath Total Carbohydrates. In an effort to reduce consumption of sugar in America, the FDA's new labeling laws  differentiate between two kinds of sugar. The first is total sugar content, which includes both sugars that naturally occur in the food and added sugars. The second number specifies how many grams of the total sugar is from sugars added to the food. When it comes to sugar, overconsumption of even naturally occurring sugar is not a good idea, but you especially want to avoid added sugars.

On the label, you’ll find two numbers for sugar. One is the number of grams of sugar. (One gram of sugar is roughly equivalent to ¼ teaspoon of sugar.) There is also a percentage, which indicates how much of your recommended daily intake this particular food item will account for. The FDA recommends that sugar should account for no more than 10 percent of your daily caloric intake, but beware: that’s a generous amount. The American Heart Association recommends women consume 25 grams of sugar and men 36 grams.

Unfortunately, all of these numbers are only accurate up to a point. The FDA allows for up to a 20% margin of error for the information stated on the label. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the label altogether. Studies have shown that people who read nutrition labels are still more likely to make better eating decisions. And looking at the grams of sugar on a label can help anyone who’s trying to stick with the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 25 grams of added sugar a day, like those doing the 30-Day Sugar Reset.

What to Look for in the Ingredient List

Nutrition labels provide more than just cold, hard numbers. They also contain a list of ingredients that indicate exactly what was used to make your food, with the most significant ingredients first in the order. In other words, when an item is higher on the list, that means there was more of it in the food. That’s why it's a good idea to avoid any food when a sugar is listed within the first three ingredients—it's a signal that the amount of sugar in the food is way too high.

But also watch out for sugar listed under multiple names on the ingredient list, which makes it tricky to spot right away. Manufacturers do this to hide the fact that the food includes a lot of sugar. For example, on jams, you’ll see fruit syrup listed separately from sugar or corn syrup, but they’re all just forms of sugar. (You can read more about the different names for sugar here).

As a general rule, look for foods with fewer than eight grams of sugar per serving and don’t buy anything that contains more sugar than fiber. If you’re committed to a low-sugar lifestyle, the nutrition label is your first stop for the information you need to make good decisions about what you eat. The more aware you become, the easier it will be to avoid sugar and the cravings that it triggers.