Noshu founder Rachel Bajada gives us the rundown on hidden sugar content and how to uncover the true sugar content of your ‘health foods’ and ‘healthy’ pantry staples; because although they might claim to be ‘sugar-free’, it might not actually be the case…
Orange juice has recently come under the spotlight for its high sugar content. Long marketed as a healthy alternative to soft drinks, the recent announcement sees some popular juices now scoring as low as 2.5 on the Health Star Rating due to their high sugar and low fibre content, on par with soft drinks like diet coke.
With fruit juices found in many households across Australia, it begs the question: what other ‘healthy’ pantry and fridge staples are in fact high in hidden sugar content and how do we know the difference?
Due to rising pressure on manufacturers to create better-for-you products, hidden sugars are increasingly appearing on ingredient lists as they’re often used to disguise the real amount of sugar actually added to a food by making them appear healthier than they really are.
Having created Noshu, Australia’s true sugar-free foods company, I’ve seen all the tricks of the trade used by food manufacturers to disguise added sugars. From rice malt syrup in a jar marketed as a way to ‘quit sugar’, to date paste, agave syrup, fruit concentrates and glucose – there are now over 40 names for added sugar.
Back in 2013 when I started developing our product range, I was both disappointed and highly motivated by the limited range of available foods made without chemical sweeteners, nasty additives and sugars in disguise. So how does one cut through the marketing to understand what sugars are actually in our food, masquerading as health foods?
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10 hidden sugars to look out for
The easiest way to get a handle on how much sugar is in your food, is to go straight to the sugars per 100g column on the nutrition information panel. Foods with less than 5g per 100g (five per cent) total sugar get a tick as very low sugar options.
I would consider anything in the five to 10 per cent range as moderate, given Australian labels do not yet have a declared breakdown of how much of that sugar is added, versus naturally occurring.
Many raw snack bars and bliss balls are up to 40 per cent sugar, just from dried fruit like dates and sultanas as they don’t read like added sugar on the ingredients list. Sure, this might be ‘naturally occurring’ from fruit, but you still need to take this into account in your daily intake.
As a quick guide, here are the top 10 most commonly added ‘sugars in disguise’ to look out for:
Rice malt syrup
Rice malt syrup or brown rice syrup is a natural sweetener made from brown rice. Rice syrup may be hailed as fructose-free, but it has a very high GI of up to 85 and is mostly made up of two simple sugars – glucose and maltose.
Agave syrup is a natural sweetener made from the Mexican native plant Blue Agave Tequilana Weber. The juice extracted from blue agave is highly processed and contains up to 90 per cent fructose.
Coconut sugar is a natural sugar made from coconut palm sap. Whilst it may have slightly more minerals and be less processed than white table sugar, it’s still sugar.
High-fructose corn syrup
Not as common on Australian food labels but still mainly found in American and imported food labels. One of the worst offenders, this sugar is highly processed and is mostly fructose.
The Glycaemic index uses glucose as its basis – for which Glucose has a GI of 100 and everything else is measured against it. Glucose syrup is in most muesli bars, nut bars and snack bars to bind ingredients together and add sweetness whilst providing almost no nutritive value.
A single medjool date contains around 16g (four teaspoons) of sugar. Yes, it’s from fruit and comes with fibre and nutrients, but it contributes a very high fructose load and is often used to bind and sweeten snack bars without an ‘added sugar’ label.
Not to be confused with IMO or tapioca fibre, it may sound better-for-you as a root vegetable, but is just a liquid sugar with little nutritional value.
Pure fructose may make you think of fruit – so it must be better than sugar, right? Wrong. Fructose has to be metabolised by the liver where it is used as a carbohydrate to create fat.
Recently added to a ‘no added sugar’ formulation by one of Australia’s iconic powdered chocolatey beverage brands, maltose is a disaccharide made from malted cereal grains. It is not always required to be declared as an ‘added sugar’ on Australian food labels, despite still being a form of sugar derived from grain.
Honey is an Australian household favourite and one of the most common, natural breakfast spreads and alternative sweeteners. It can have excellent health benefits especially if it is raw and unprocessed, but it is still more than 80 per cent sugar – of which is mostly fructose, so still needs to be treated as a form of added sugar.
Alternative low-GI sweeteners
Of course, many of the most common alternative names for sugars are naturally occurring and can be consumed in moderation, the key is in knowing they are there and recognising that they still contribute to your daily sugar intake.
Some low GI, alternative plant-based sweeteners without the empty calories that I recommend include stevia, monk fruit extract, erythritol, xylitol and chicory inulin. These natural sweeteners are not ‘hidden sugars’, are plant derived ingredients and are generally safe for diabetics – so you can enjoy sweet treats without the high sugar load.
Rachel Bajada is the founder of Australian sugar free foods company, Noshu Foods and has a food science background. Noshu Sugar Free and Low Carb products can be found in Coles, Woolworths and independent grocers, nationally.