Never trust the large print

Sugar is the new fat. Word is getting around among us consumers that we are all eating too much sugar. In 2015, the WHO slashed its recommendation for sugar intake by half, to just 10% of calorie intake and said better still: 5%. For the average woman – whoever she is – that’s just 25g or 6 tsp per day, for the average man (?) 31g or 8 tsp per day.

sugar, less sugar, 30% less, sugar-free, low calorie

That’s unfortunate for the food industry, because they were quite content with the low fat recommendations (which we are getting at the same time). Sugar is cheaper than fat, tastes just as good, reduces calorie content and increases shelf life. Win-win. More good news: In 2012 the European Union lifted its ban on high-fructose corn syrup and it is has been allowed for use in the EU since October 2017. Only we don’t call it HFCS (because here it is more likely to be made from wheat, not corn), but ‘isoglucose’ or ‘glucose-fructose syrup’. Unfortunately though, we, the consumers, don’t want to buy so much sugar anymore, and therefore you’ll now see “No added sugar” or “30% less sugar” printed on products that wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for sugar, such as chocolate powder to stir into milk (I’m not going to call it ‘cocoa powder’) or wine gums. 

I had a look at a popular brand of said chocolate powder that now offers an alternative with “No added sugar”.

Original version: 1 standard serving of 14g has 50kcal and contains 12g carbohydrates, of which 11g are sugar. The “No added sugar” (very large print on the box!) version has just 35kcal – which looks like a good start, but – oh, look – a standard serving here is just 11g (why?). This standard serving also contains 12g carbohydrates, but only 3g of this is sugar. Excellent! Or is it?

If you scrutinise the ingredients you’ll see that it has some extra ingredients: maltodextrin, sucralose and starch. So, what’s ‘maltodextrin’? It’s an oligosaccharide – a very short chain of … sugars.

All carbohydrates are made up of chains of ‘saccharides’ – sugar molecules. An individual saccharide is called ‘monosaccharide’: glucose, fructose or galactose. If two come together they form a “disaccharide”: examples are lactose (glucose and galactose) or sucrose – which is table sugar (glucose and fructose). Only mono- and disaccharides are ‘sugars’.

More saccharides strung together are ‘polysaccharides’ or starch. Short ones of just 3 to 10 sugars are also called ‘oligosaccharides’. A polysaccharide can be very long indeed: 200 to 2,500 monosaccharides.

Back to maltodextrin: It is an oligosaccharide consisting of just 6 monosaccharides – sugar molecules. Once ingested the digestive system breaks this down in record time into glucose that raises our blood sugar levels. It has a moderately sweet taste – less sweet than sugar – and is used by the food industry to improve texture and ‘mouth feel’. 

So because at the point of consumption maltodextrin is not sugar (but a form of starch) they’re not lying if they’re saying that a product contains less sugar than the original. It contains starch, more starch and sucralose. The latter is an artificial sweetener that our body cannot break down, so we get the sweetness, but not the calories. We now know that artificial sweeteners make us fat anyway, never mind the calories. Which, by the way, amount to 44 (!) once you increase the standard serving back to that of the original chocolate powder: 14g. So weight-by-weight the calorie difference per serving is 6 kcal. Blink and you miss it.

Another example: wine gums. A popular brand here now proudly presents us with a version that has (large print) “30% less sugar”. How come?

The original version contains 54g sugar per 100g, which is supplied by glucose syrup and sugar. There’s no suggested serving size, but 20g sounds about right. That handful of wine gums would have 80 kcal. The “30% less sugar” version of the same brand contains 37g sugar per 100g. What’s in it? Glucose syrup, sugar, inulin, our friend maltodextrin and starch.

Inulin? Another ‘oligosaccharide’ made up of fructose, but in this case our body cannot break the bonds between the fructose molecules, so it won’t add to the calories of the product. It has a slightly sweet taste, which probably explains its presence in wine gums. Inulin occurs naturally in many plants – including vegetables – and is actually a ‘prebiotic’ food, meaning it feeds our good bacteria. But before you get too excited about it: It can be problematic for people with IBS as it is one of the FODMAPs.

How many calories are in a 20g serving of “30% less sugar” gums? 70kcal. 12.5% fewer calories. That’s better than the saving in the chocolate powder example, but much less than the “30% less sugar” announcement would have us hope for.

Next time you see a “less sugar” announcement, have a look at the label and compare to the original. You can have hours of fun in the supermarket!

For a similar evaluation of crisps (“ONLY 94 CALORIES PER PACK!”) click here.