How to Read Food Labels and Understand Sugar Content



Contributor: Jade Gibbons

Words by: Jade Gibbons, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Nutriscope Solutions


Understanding the information on a food label can greatly assist consumers in selecting foods to meet their dietary needs and preferences. In line with increasing consumer awareness of the amount of sugar in many foods, the focus of this article is sugar and food labels. In particular, how to read a food label to determine the amount and type of sugar in a product.

To achieve the above, we’ll provide an introduction to label reading; a useful skill that applies to any packaged food product. The key food label components we’ll look at include the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP) and ingredient list.

I hope the below information assists in your understanding of food labels and the sugar content in foods. Let’s get started!


Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)

The NIP on a label shows the amount of certain nutrients found in a stated amount of the product. These nutrients include energy, protein, fat (total and saturated), carbohydrate (total and sugars) and sodium. There may be further categories and/or subset of these categories, for example, ‘sugars’ is a subset of ‘carbohydrates’. The amount shown for each of the nutrients is listed ‘Per Serve’ and ‘Per 100 g’ (or ml, for a liquid food).

The question is, should you look at the ‘Per Serve’ or ‘Per 100 g’ column in the NIP?

The answer depends on what you would like to know. For example, it is useful to look at the ‘Per Serve’ column when the serving size stated on the pack represents the amount that will be eaten on a given occasion. If the serving size stated on the pack does not reflect what will be eaten on a given occasion, it may be more useful to look at the ‘Per 100 g’ column. Similarly, using the ‘Per 100 g’ column on the NIP is more useful when comparing the NIP content between similar products (for example, two different yoghurts).

The amount of sugar stated in the NIP currently does not distinguish between sugar that is naturally occurring in a food and sugar that is added as an ingredient (or part of an ingredient). Examples of food with naturally occurring sugars include fruit and milk (sugar is in the form of lactose). These foods provide beneficial nutrients such as fibre and vitamins in fruit, and protein and calcium in milk. Without the distinction between ‘naturally occurring’ and ‘added’ sugars in the NIP, it can create some difficultly in interpreting the sugar content of the product. This is where it can be also useful to look at the ingredient list.


Ingredient List

Have you ever wondered how the ingredient list is ordered?

The ingredient list is ordered in terms of ingoing weight, where ingoing refers to the amount of an ingredient added during manufacture. This means that the earlier/higher an ingredient is listed in the ingredient list, the greater weight amount of that ingredient went into the product.

It is useful to know how the ingredient list is ordered as it helps to provide a greater understanding of what is in a product. For example, if sugar (or another of its many names) is listed early in the ingredient list, then it means that a greater weight amount of sugar was added; how much however usually remains unknown. It is therefore not a definitive way of understanding how much ‘added’ sugar is in a product however it can be used a general guide.


Sugar (and its many disguises)

This is where it can get a bit tricky! Added sugar is not necessary listed as ‘sugar’ in the ingredient list; it has many different forms and names. How many of the following sound familiar?

Agave, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut nectar, coconut sugar, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, glucose syrup, golden syrup, honey, icing sugar, invert sugar, maple syrup, molasses, panela, rapadura sugar, raw sugar, rice malt syrup, sucrose

(They’re all types of added sugar!)
‘No added sugar’
We’ve talked about ‘added’ sugar but what does that really mean in terms of labelling?

A product can state that it has ‘No added sugar’ only if meets defined criteria. Rather than providing the (long) criteria of what a product cannot contain, let’s look at some examples of sweet tasting ingredients that typically can be used alongside a ‘No added sugar’ claim. These include the addition of fruit, intense sweeteners (for example, sorbitol) or sugar replacements (for example, stevia). For example, a muesli that has dried fruit (without sugar added).


Now what?

Now that you know the above, how can you use this information to select healthy foods and be mindful of added sugar?

  • If time permits when food shopping, compare the NIP values and ingredient list between similar products
  • Given the frequent consumption of everyday staple foods, it is beneficial to look at the nutritional quality of these products and change to a healthier product as appropriate
  • Also think about what is realistic in terms of the sugar content in a product. For example, discretionary foods such as biscuits and chocolate contain a higher level of sugar however note that these foods are also intended to be consumed infrequently

Most importantly, aim to eat mainly core foods items (for example, vegetables, whole grain foods, fish/lean meat, legumes/beans, fruit and dairy products/alternatives) and limit intake of discretionary foods (for example, cakes, soft drinks, pies, chips, ice cream, biscuits, sugar and syrups).


Disclaimer: This article is provided for information purposes only. It is not intended as advice and should not be relied upon as such. Independent advice suited to individual circumstances should be sought from relevant industry professionals prior to making any decisions.

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