How Food Companies Hide Sugar in Plain Sight


Everybody knows that if you want to see what’s in the food you buy in the grocery store, all you have to do is check the ingredients list. All foods are required to list all their ingredients, ranked by prevalence, somewhere on the label.

Therefore, if you want to get a rough sense of how much high fructose corn syrup is in your breakfast cereal, or how much sugar is in your pasta sauce, all you have to do is glance at the ingredients. If sugar or HFCS is one of the top three or four ingredients on the list, then you can safely roll your eyes and put the product back on the shelf. It’s an easy decision-making method for consumers who don’t want to eat over-sweetened food.

Or is it?

Insidious Workarounds

Unfortunately, a quick glance just isn’t enough any more, because many food companies have caught on to us. They know that we’ve all trained ourselves to scan the ingredients and make sure sugar and high fructose corn syrup aren’t near the top of the list.

So they’ve arrived at an insidious workaround that subverts our quick glances, and often leads consumers to underestimate the sugar content of a food. How? By using three, four or even five different kinds of sugar in the food, and listing each sweetener separately.

Thus a sugar-heavy cereal that years ago might have listed sugar as the second ingredient may now be made with sugar, brown sugar, molasses, dextrose and corn syrup solids. And those ingredients may be listed as the sixth, seventh, ninth, tenth and twelfth ingredients, respectively. Here’s the insidious part: the sugar/sweetener content is higher than ever, but sugar now appears sixth instead of second on the list. And the consumer, who quickly glanced and didn’t see sugar among the top three ingredients, is misled into thinking that this food has less sugar than it really does.

Protect Yourself

How can you protect yourself from being misled? Here are three tips:

1) First, you’ll have to read ingredients lists a lot more closely than you did in the past. There’s just no way around it.

2) Second, be on the lookout for the following ingredients–any of them can be used in addition to, or as a substitute for, plain old sugar:

  • molasses
  • brown sugar
  • honey
  • maple syrup
  • glucose
  • fructose
  • juice concentrates (these are typically fructose- and glucose-heavy)
  • brown rice syrup
  • high fructose corn syrup (or HFCS for short)
  • corn syrup (an often-used alternate name for HFCS)
  • corn syrup solids (HFCS in powder or crystalline form)
  • dextrose (a form of glucose, also a sweetener)
  • maltodextrin (another sweetener, made up of a chain of glucose molecules)

[A brief word on the last two items on this list, dextrose and maltodextrin. Despite having fancy names that don’t sound sweet at all, these two variant forms of glucose are indeed sweeteners.]

3) Third, be aware that when you’re looking at a list of ingredients with multiple sweetening agents, there simply isn’t enough information for you to estimate the total sugar content of that food. However, a good rule of thumb is to assume that any food with three or more sweetening agents has an inappropriately high sugar content.

Walk Away

Finally, let the consumer products companies know that you won’t use your wallet to support hyper-sweetened foods or misleading ingredient labeling. Of course it’s one thing if you’re buying cookies or candy–you’d expect to see sugar and its variants prominently (and repeatedly) listed in the ingredients.

But if you see this labeling technique used with cereal, pasta sauce, prepared dinners or any other food that really shouldn’t contain tooth-aching quantities of sugar, punish that brand immediately. Put the product back on the shelf, shake your head at the shortsightedness of the processed food industry, and slowly walk away.

*Originally published by Casual Kitchen.

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11 years ago

Skim milk powder is another one as milk is also naturally sweet.

13 years ago

Somehow, I don’t think people who can’t bother to read the line just under Total Carbohydrate (you know, the one that says “Sugars”) are going to get much out of skimming the ingredients list–knowing the quantity of sugar is a bit more important than knowing the specific type, though it’s all useful information to have. But maybe I’m just cynical.

13 years ago

Hi Stefanie, great question. 

In some cases the answer will be yes, but in other cases no.  In a pasta-based food, for example, or a food with potatoes or corn as a major ingredient, the total carbs measure will include the complex carbs in *those* ingredients as well as any carbs from the added sugars.  That’s why this method of sweetening food is so insidious.

Casual Kitchen

13 years ago

Thanks for pointing this out.
I have a corn allergy, which means I can eat almost no “boxed” foods.  It has helped me to cook more, use fresh ingredients, make & freeze my own soups and sauces…..I found that I consume much less sugar, salt and preservatives this way.
It was a huge lifestyle change, but worth it.

13 years ago

But won’t the total number of sugar grams come up under the carbohydrate count? They can’t possibly hide the information there.

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