Food Labels, Decoded, to Help You Spot Hidden Sugar
Has this ever happened to you? You’re standing in a crowded grocery store aisle, trying to figure out what the heck is in this “healthy food” you’re eyeing on the shelf.
You’re not alone. For decades, the labels on foods sold in the United States have been difficult to read and decipher.
This can be frustrating, especially if you have a child with the rare condition Congenital Sucrase-Isomaltase Deficiency (CSID), resulting in Sucrose Intolerance, informally called “Sugar Intolerance.” No matter what you call it, this condition results in the inability to digest sucrose (table sugar) and starch (chains of sugar).
You need to know if a food contains sugar or starch and, if so, which kind and how much.
Help is coming, but at the government’s not-so-fast timetable. In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new regulations on the content of food labels, officially called Nutrition Facts. Most food manufacturers have to comply with these new regulations by January 1, 2020, but many have already introduced the new labels.
The biggest thing you will notice about the new food labels is just that – how big the type is.
Another change is that serving sizes have been given a reality check. They’ve been updated to a more realistic amount of a food or beverage one usually consumes in a single serving. For example, a half cup of ice cream was considered a single serving in the past. The new food labels use two-thirds of a cup.
The amount of an ingredient is not given in these lists, but you can guess the relative amount of an ingredient by its place in the ingredient list. Ingredients are always listed in order of largest to smallest amounts.
Beware the Missing Sugar Stats
The change in food labels that is most important to parents of children with CSID is found in the section titled Total Carbohydrate. This is where sugar is visible – and invisible.
In addition to listing the amount of total sugars there are in a single serving, the label in this section also lists the amount of added sugars in a serving.
Added sugars are any sugars that are added in during the production of the food. They include sugars that come from syrups and honey, and sugars that come from concentrated fruit juice or vegetable juices when they contain more sugar than you would expect to find naturally in that fruit juice or vegetable juice.
However, it’s important for the parent of a child with CSID to note that added sugars do not include frozen juice concentrates or some sugars found in fruit jellies, jams, or preserves.
Other information contained in the Total Carbohydrate section includes the amount of total sugar and the amount of dietary fiber found in a single serving.
To determine if the sugar in a food is the type of sugar that is okay for your child to eat, you need to read the list of ingredients found elsewhere on the label.
The terms that are used to identify sweeteners include sucrose, glucose, and fructose, which are different types of natural sugars. Man-made sweeteners, including sorbitol, mannitol, high-fructose corn syrup, saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame potassium (also referred to as acesulfame-K) are also included on the label.
Sugars that are okay for your child with CSID are those that are already small enough to be absorbed. These types of sugar include glucose and fructose.
Children with Sucrose Intolerance have a reduced ability to digest foods containing sucrose or maltose. In addition, many manufactured sugar substitutes may produce stomach symptoms, such as watery diarrhea, gas, and bloating, that you are trying hard to avoid.
The Label Lowdown on Fiber
Another item found in the Total Carbohydrate section is the amount of dietary fiber there is in a single serving.
Dietary fibers, known as roughage, are not digested or absorbed by the body. This is true for everyone, whether or not they have CSID.
Instead, dietary fibers travel a long and winding path through the stomach, passing from the small intestine where non-fiber food is broken down and absorbed into the body, to the large intestine where undigested food, like fiber, is turned into waste.
The large intestine has bacteria that break down the sugar in undigested foods through a process called “fermentation.” One by-product of fermentation is gas. For some people, this can cause uncomfortable bloating and embarrassing farts.
While dietary fiber is an important part of a healthy diet because it keeps our intestinal plumbing working well, children with CSID may need to limit the amount of fiber-rich foods they eat. This is true for those without Sugar Intolerance who experience distressing stomach symptoms after eating foods they can’t easily digest.
It can be incredibly helpful to talk with a registered dietitian (RD), who specializes in helping people understand what foods are good and bad for them and how to work the foods into their diet so that they enjoy eating while avoiding stomach trouble.
This is especially important for parents of kids with Sucrose Intolerance because the new food labels, as improved as they may be for most people, do not break down the info on sugars as much as you need them to.
Plus, an RD can work with you to see if there are some foods that have a small amount of sugar that your child with CSID can tolerate and give you both more variety.