Photo by Dennis Meuwissen
If “sex sells” is the entertainment industry’s motto, then “sweet sells” ought to be the food industry’s creed.
Our food is rapidly changing. Food manufacturers are sneakier than ever before, and sweeteners now saturate an alarming number of products.
For those concerned with limiting natural and artificial sweeteners, a simple trip to the grocery store is now filled with landmines and wolves in sheep’s clothing. A healthy person scouring supermarkets for food not laced with sweeteners is now akin to a designated driver searching Sixth Street for sober peers. Both scenarios can be successful, but undesirables along the way can make things messy.
Just as Austinites use smart watches and personal trainers to meet their health resolutions, the grocery and food industries use tools and labeling loopholes to help meet their goal: Profit. In a nation addicted to sugar and its artificial counterparts, the demand is high and sweeteners are king. We’re hard-wired to consume more and pay more if our taste buds detect sweetness, and that’s no secret within the food industry.
Despite the odds stacked against the consumer, there’s still plenty of good news. People are experimenting with diets like Whole30 and watching Films like “Fed Up” all while the food manufacturer’s playbook is being exposed. So, if you’re trying to cut the sweet stuff, here are some tips for a better-informed shopping experience.
Beware of Math
Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires the amount of sugar in products to be listed, relying solely on the math could be misleading for several reasons. First, companies round down the sugar total and create absurdly small serving sizes to make it appear as if there is less sugar (and fat) in the product. This means if you eat seven servings of a supposedly “sugar free” snack with 0.49 grams of sugar per serving, you’ll be consuming 3.43 grams of sugar despite the label’s “sugar free” claim.
Another reason we should be skeptical of the supposed grams of sugar on a package is because artificial sweeteners are often substituted for sugar and go unreported in the nutritional box numbers. In addition to focusing on the math, it’s important to know the various pseudonyms for sweeteners and understand the impact they have.
A classic example is aspartame, an artificial sweetener with more than 90 reported side effects, according to the FDA. There was once so much concern about aspartame’s health impact that it went on trial in a 1987 congressional hearing, and for many who’ve viewed the testimony (still available via C-SPAN) it’s baffling why it’s still allowed in our food. Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar, according to the European Food Safety Authority, but because it’s technically not a sugar, it’s found in excess in foods labeled “sugar-free.”
Look for Red Flags
A complete listing of artificial sweeteners or code names for sugars and sugar alcohols reveal helpful themes for identifying potential sweeteners. For instance, words ending “ol” often (but not always) signal a sugar alcohol such as xylitol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and sorbitol. Furthermore, ingredients ending with “ose” may signal other intruders such as fructose, maltose, lactose, glucose, dextrose and sucrose.
Other words such as “cane” (cane juice, cane sugar), “malt” (maltodextrin, barley malt, maltose), and “syrup” (high-fructose corn syrup, carob syrup, maple syrup) are virtually certain to be connected with the sweetener industry. Nutritionists have long suggested avoiding food ingredients we can’t pronounce, and that’s generally helpful advice, but remember harmless and natural sounding ingredients such as coconut and agave nectar pack a sweet punch too.
While analyzing ingredients, watch for past-tense verbs (ending in “ed”). Remember, having a past-tense verb in it means someone has done something to the ingredient (i.e. hydrolyzed, hydrogenated), and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single example of manufacturers utilizing a verb ingredient to make a product healthier. Instead, these manipulated ingredients are used to make products last longer, look better, improve texture and in the case of sweeteners—taste better. Some common past-tense verbs associated with sweeteners are evaporated corn syrup, crystalized cane juice, granulated sugar and hydrogenated starch.
Sweeteners are no longer relegated to their traditional products like cola or candy. Now seemingly everything like crackers, peanut butter, pasta sauces and even baby food often contain a hit. It’s more important now than ever before to learn about what we’re eating and become less dependent on label math. So in a sense, perhaps the best defense to “sweet sells” is “rigorous research.”