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Help shoppers better understand sugar labeling

The Natural Foods Merchandiser Secret Shopper hit a natural foods co-op in the Midwest to learn about reading the Nutrition Facts panel. Here's how the store did and how you can help your customers with this kind of question.

NFM Secret Shopper: I want to watch my intake of added sugars, so how should I read labels to know how much is in a packaged food, such as this mango salsa?

Store: The Nutrition Facts panel will tell you how many grams of sugar are in there. See here? It says 6 grams.

NFM Secret Shopper: But some of that sugar comes naturally from the mangoes and whatever other fruits and veggies are in the salsa, right? And that type of sugar isn’t necessarily bad for me?

Store: Correct. That’s not considered “added sugar.” Sometimes extra sweeteners are added to foods on top of naturally occurring sugar, and you want to be mindful of those. But just by looking at the Nutrition Facts, you don’t know for sure where sugar is coming from, so that’s when you turn to the ingredients list. OK, yep, here it says “evaporated cane sugar,” so that means this salsa contains added sugar.  

NFM Secret Shopper: But there’s really no way of knowing how much of the total sugar is “added”?

Store: Not really. Some brands will print “no added sugars” or “no additional sweeteners” on the front of their labels, but if they don’t, it’s not always clear. 

How did this retailer do? 

Our expert educator: Jen McDaniel, RDN, owner of McDaniel Nutrition Therapy in St. Louis and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

This retailer was well-informed and gave sound nutrition advice. She began by pointing to the Nutrition Facts label to seek out the sugars listed. With a second prompt from the secret shopper, the employee explained the difference between sugar types and accurately noted that consumers should be more concerned with added sugars than naturally occurring ones. The retailer did not mention why this is, so she could have explained that sugars like those found in fruit or yogurt are married with a host of vitamins and minerals whereas added sugars have little to no nutritional value. When asked how the shopper could decipher how much of the total sugar content came from natural or added sugars, the retailer stated accurately that this is difficult to do and—very smartly—mentioned the importance of looking at the ingredient list.  

Here is some more helpful info and advice the retailer could have offered: Compare brands for amounts of total added sugars (for example, mango salsa A with 4 grams versus mango salsa B with 7 grams). Scan ingredients lists for sugar aliases such as high-fructose corn syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrate. Look for how many different types of added sugars are in the ingredient list. And finally, come July 26, 2018, food manufacturers will be mandated to specifically list out how many grams of added sugar are in products, which will make it easier for everyone to identify added sugars. 

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