Sugar By Any Other Name

As I write this post, lawyers in Los Angeles are having a battle royale over whether high fructose corn syrup can be called corn sugar. Stepping back just a little bit reveals that the real duel is between the Sugar and Corn industries. Stepping back a little further reveals that this court case is simply a gargantuan effort to clarify how to name a food ingredient so it appears more marketable to the public. Ultimately lost in the fray is the fact that both of these products are sugar (in the biochemical sense), and neither of them is very good for us.

Food companies have done an excellent job defining sugar (again in the biochemical sense) on ingredient statements by the raw commodities they come from. Our failure to pick up on this trend probably has something to do with the disconnect between sugar as identified in the nutrition facts section (biochemical) and sugar as identified in the ingredient statement (botanical, if you will). Would we interpret Nutrition Facts Panels differently if there were different rules for ingredients? Probably. Here are just a few examples of how ingredient statements might read if the rules were a little different.

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Regardless of the outcome of this court case (and any other attempt to name sweeteners for that matter), sugar, syrups, honey, agave, molasses, fruit concentrates, and evaporated cane juice are all sweeteners – ingredients all of us should be consuming in lower quantities.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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2 Responses to Sugar By Any Other Name

  1. reengler says:

    You make a good point that types of sugars (let’s call them carbohydrates) are often hidden throughout ingredient lists. One could argue that they all be lumped together under a single ingredient (“natural sweetener” or “sugars” or whatever), but there may be good reasons for consumers to know the source of the carbohydrate. Perhaps someone is allergic to one of the sources of sweeteners. They need to know if the sweetener came from corn, agave, grapes, sugar cane, sugar beets, etc.).

    You are also right that the consumer needs to know the total sugar so they understand how that product fits in their diet.

    So, I would argue that it makes sense to list ingredients as they are and then sum up all the sugars on the nutrition label so you know the total sugar content from every source.

    Some consumers may only look down the ingredient list to see where “sugar” appears and assume the carbohydrate content is lower than it actually is. I would argue that this is a misuse of the ingredient list and we should not change the rules of listing ingredients to prevent this.

  2. Kim says:

    I’d actually prefer they at least include the source of the sugar in what they say on the label. For someone allergic or having a food sensitivity to corn (or sugarcane, honey, or the unlisted ingredients used to stop molasses and brown sugar from fermenting), it’s important to know what type of sugar it is. These aren’t especially common problems, but for people who have them, not having a reaction is much higher priority than eating less sugar, and it shouldn’t mean avoiding all foods with sugar in them. It’s hard enough to find corn-free versions of some kinds of foods even with correct labeling.

    If people reading the labels wrong is a major issue, some education on how to do it right (adding it to health class curriculums, or public service announcements on television or on posters in grocery stores) would probably be a better solution.

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