The Nutrition Source

Cereal Bowl (cereal-bowl-small.jpg) When you eat an apple or carrot or bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, you know what you are eating—an apple or carrot or steel-cut oats. That’s not the case with ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, cookies, frozen dinners, or any of the thousands of other processed foods. Think of these as terra incognita, and the ingredient list on the package as your map to it. But like an old pirate map, some ingredient lists are designed to confuse and muddle rather than lead you to the treasure. The biggest sleight of hand involves sugar.

Food makers are required to list all the ingredients in a product in descending order by weight. The most abundant ingredient is listed first, the next second, and so on. If a product is chock-full of sugar, you would expect to see sugar listed first, or maybe second. But food makers can fudge the list by adding sweeteners that aren’t technically sugar—that term is applied only to table sugar, or sucrose—but that add sugar all the same. Such sweeteners include agave nectar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and molasses. The trick is that each sweetener is listed separately.

The contribution of each added sugar may be small enough so it shows up fourth, fifth, or even further down the list. But add them up, and you can get a whopping dose of added sugar. Take General Mills Oatmeal Crisp Crunchy Almond as an example. (1) According to the package, it is “Great Tasting & Heart Healthy” and “Whole Grain Guaranteed.” Yet more than one-quarter (27 percent) of this cereal is added sugar. You’d never know that from the ingredient list:

Whole grain oats, whole grain wheat, brown sugar, almond pieces, sugar, crisp oats (which contain sugar), corn syrup, barley malt extract, potassium citrate, toasted oats (which contain sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, and brown sugar molasses), salt, malt syrup, wheat bits (which contain sugar), honey, and cinnamon.

But add together brown sugar, sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar molasses, barley malt extract, honey, and malt syrup, and they add up to a hefty dose of empty calories. (See a list of popular breakfast cereals and their sugar content.)

Read more: 23 names for added sugar that you’ll find on food labels

The Nutrition Facts Label isn’t much help. By law, it must list the grams of sugar in each product. But some foods naturally contain sugar, while others get theirs from added sweeteners, and food labeling laws don’t require companies to spell out how much sugar is added.

Industry-sponsored labeling programs can also be confusing. One such program, called Smart Choices, drew scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2009 for calling Froot Loops—which is 41 percent sugar—a “Smart Choice.” (The Smart Choices program has since been suspended.)

Read more: industry food rating systems under scrutiny

Marketing Sugary Cereal to Children

Spoon of SugarYale University researchers have found that the least healthful cereals are most heavily marketed to children. (3) Some of the worst nutrition offenders are cereals like Corn Pops, Reese’s Puffs, and Froot Loops—cereals that are higher in sugar and lower in fiber than cereals marketed to adults, and that are the target of millions of dollars of television ad and Internet marketing spending each year. A new rating system takes into account a cereal’s nutritional value and how heavily it is marketed to children, with a searchable database available at CerealFacts.org.

Nutrition sleuths can compare the labels of two similar products—one with sugar, one without—and do a little math to figure out how much sugar is added sugar. For example, a 6-ounce, fat-free plain Stonyfield Farm yogurt has 12 grams of sugar. The ingredients list shows no added sugar, so all of the yogurt’s sugar comes from lactose, the sugar that is naturally found in milk. A fat-free vanilla Stonyfield Farm yogurt has 24 grams of sugar; the extra 12 grams is added sugar from “naturally milled organic sugar.” For cereals, virtually all of the sugars are added.

Why does this matter? The average American takes in 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, which amounts to an extra 350 calories. (2) Some of this we add ourselves. Most, though, comes from processed and prepared foods. (It’s the same for salt—most of the salt we consume is hidden in processed and prepared foods. Read more about the high levels of salt in our food supply and why the Institute of Medicine recommends that the U.S. regulate the amount of salt in commercially prepared foods.)

The American Heart Association (AHA) has recommended that Americans drastically cut back on added sugar to help slow the obesity and heart disease epidemics. (2) The AHA’s suggested added sugar threshold is no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for most women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for most men.

To help food shoppers cut back on added sugar, The Nutrition Source and others have long recommended skipping foods that list “sugar” as the first or second ingredient. The growing use of alternative sweeteners complicates this take-home message.

New Advice on How to Cut Sugar from Your Diet

Here’s how you can skip cereals or processed foods that have a lot of added sugar: Glance at the Nutrition Facts Label, and be suspicious of any product that has more than 5 grams of sugar per serving. Unless it’s a plain piece of fruit or glass of milk, most of that sugar is probably added sugar. So look for a lower-sugar option. If you’re in doubt, look for all the different permutations of sugar in the ingredients list. Skip products that have sugar at or near the top of the list—or have several sources of added sugar sprinkled throughout the list. And ignore industry-driven labels like “Smart Choices”—Froot Loops is anything but.

References

1. General Mills. Big G Cereals. GeneralMills.com. Accessed November 2, 2009.

2. Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2009; 120:1011-20.

3. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Cereal F.A.C.T.S. (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score). Yale University: New Haven, CT, 2009.