No added sugar does NOT mean sugar free

Foods labeled “Free of Added Sugar”, "No Added Sugar" or "Zero Sugars Added”, have become increasingly popular among health-conscious consumers. But, what exactly does "No Added Sugar" mean?

Whilst it may be obvious that high amounts of sugar are packed into fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolates, many other food items contain hidden levels of glucose. Just because a food contains "no added sugar", this does not necessarily mean it has a low sugar content or it is sugar free.

The statement "no sugar added" can only be used if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient is used during processing. Sugar-containing ingredients covered under this standard include honey, molasses, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup and cane syrup. As we explained in our article "How corporations play with labels", sugar may also not be called sugar and comes under many other guises such as corn sugar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose glucose syrup, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup. For instance, some ice creams are labeled "no sugar added" because they have not been sweetened with sugar, but they are not sugar free because they contain lactose, a natural milk sugar. Another example are sugar alcohols, which are included under "Total Carbohydrate" in the packaging's nutrition information, but identified by name in the ingredients list -- sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol are among the most common.

According to the European Commission Food Safety guidelines, a claim that a food is sugars-free, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product contains no more than 0,5 g of sugars per 100 g or 100 ml. This includes naturally occurring forms of sugar and any ingredient that contains sugar. Technically, the food product does not have to be completely free of sugar, as long as it meets the per-serving requirement. While half a gram of sugar is rather insignificant, keep this fact in mind if you plan to consume multiple servings of a food.

New legislation

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is to advise on intake of added sugar, following a joint request for an opinion from Denmark, Finland, Sweden and non-EU Iceland and Norway.

In a statement, EFSA said it “aims to establish a science-based cut-off value for daily exposure to added sugars from all sources which is not associated with adverse health effects” in the opinion which is scheduled for early 2020.

“Added sugars from all sources comprise sucrose, fructose, glucose, starch hydrolysates such as glucose syrup, high-fructose syrup, and other sugar preparations consumed as such or added during food preparation and manufacturing,” the statement explained, adding: “The adverse health effects under consideration will include body weight, glucose intolerance and insulin sensitivity, type-2-diabetes, cardiovascular risk factors, as well as dental caries.”

SAFE says explain added sugar

Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) welcomed the move but called on EFSA to explain the difference between natural and added sugar. SAFE Secretary General Floriana Cimmarusti told EU Food Law: “SAFE highly welcomes EFSA’s initiative to scrutinize all types of sugar and their effects on health. Indeed, the distinction between natural sugar and free sugar has to be better explained and visible in order to inform the consumers about the hazardousness of free sugar.”

Cimmarusti continued: “We believe that the important and independent studies of the World Health Organization (WHO) and their recommendation of daily sugar intake to not consume more than 12 teaspoons a day for adults should be considered carefully.”

She flagged up a study carried out in the Italian hospital Bambino Gesù last year which analysed 271 overweight children with a high-fructose diet and concluded that 37.6% of the children had a fatty liver due to their daily sugar consumption.

Cimmarusti also highlighted research from Queensland University showing that sugar can be additive to call on the food industry to cut hidden sugar in food. The study “demonstrated that between sugar and cocaine rats orientate themselves towards sugar. Consequently, the food industry should reduce the excessive quantities of sugar they put in food products in which we could not even assume they contain added sugar like tomato sauce.”