‘Sugar’ or ‘sugars’? The meaning depends on the ‘context’

Posted by
May 15, 2012

Pepsi Throwback is made with "real" sugar. Other front of package sugar claims may mean something else.

FoodIdentityTheft.com — May 15, 2012 — Now that Disney’s “Mary Poppins” has been resurrected as a stage play, a whole new generation has been introduced to the catchy tune “A Spoonful of Sugar” that Julie Andrews sang on the original movie sound track.  Unfortunately, the meaning of the word “sugar” is now a lot more ambiguous than it was back in the 1960s when that film made its debut.

These days, it’s quite easy to confuse “sugar” with “sugars.” According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), those terms mean different things depending on the “context” in which they appear. In other words, the exact place that either word occupies on a food product package can lead to an array of amazingly confusing claims.

The FDA definition of “sugar,” as found in the Code of Federal Regulations, means the natural sweet substance that is “obtained from sugar cane or sugar beets.” But the term you’ll find on the Nutrition Facts Label is “sugars” with an “s” which is defined as “the sum of all free mono- and disaccharides (such as glucose, fructose, lactose and sucrose),” with no information as to what the source is or if the “sugars” are naturally occurring or added.

To further the confusion (which is what started my investigation into this issue), numerous food packages claim the products inside have “less sugar” when in fact they don’t contain any real “sugar” at all.  A case in point: Capri Sun juice “drink,” which states on the package that it has  “25% less sugar than leading regular juice drinks.” Now Capri Sun is a product that in ingredient-label reality basically consists of nothing more than water and high fructose corn syrup. So what does “less sugar” on this HFCS-laced beverage that’s being marketed to kids really mean?

Taking my question to the FDA, I was first told that “’less sugar’ is a nutrient content claim defined under 21 CFR.” I was also told that “sugar-free” in actuality, means “sugars-free.” But when the agency addressed the wording in the Nutrition Labeling Education Act back in 1993, despite numerous comments to the effect that “sugars-free “would be more precise terminology, the FDA decided in favor of “sugar-free” instead, reasoning that “sugars-free” would be “confusing” to consumers.

Also in 1999, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a petition with the FDA requesting that “added” sugars (as opposed to naturally present sugars in products such as pure juice and milk) be listed on the Nutrition Facts label, which oddly enough the American Dietetic Association went on record as opposing, saying that if folks want to see if the “sugars” are naturally occurring or added, they should consult the ingredient label.

If “sugar” means sucrose (from sugar cane or sugar beets), then shouldn’t “less sugar” mean less sucrose?

I asked the FDA that very question, and finally received this response in an e-mail: “Sugar can be a confusing term in that it can refer to both a food (or ingredient) and a nutrient. How it may be used depends on the context in which it is used.”  The agency further stated that when the term “sugar” is used as a “statement of identity or ingredient statement” it means real sugar, as in sucrose. “Otherwise, we view the term as a nutrient.” So the HFCS-loaded Capri Sun drink can state “less sugar,” even though it contains no real sugar, by making a front-of-package “nutrient” claim, which allows for “sugars” to be called “sugar.”

We don’t need any more sugar confusion!

If all this adds up to just more confusion while shopping, here are two things you can do.

First, bypass the Nutrition Facts label if you’re looking to avoid HFCS and other sugar “imposters” and go straight to the ingredient label, which will tell you exactly what sweeteners are used in the product. Natural cane or beet sugar will be called by its actual name: “sugar.”

Second, click here to send your comments to the FDA regarding the 2010 petition (which is still active and accepting comments at the agency) from the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of the unnatural HFCS to “corn sugar.”

Tell the FDA that when it comes to sweeteners, the issue is confusing enough already, thank you.  We don’t need any additional confusion created by a test-tube, laboratory-created sweetener masquerading as a “sugar” that it’s not.