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Experts say consumers can be misled by the sugar contents listed on food labels. d3sign/Getty Images
  • Researchers say the Nutri-Score labeling system in Europe can help consumers determine the sugar content and other healthy components of food products.
  • The system grades products from “A” to “E” based on their content of fibers, proteins, saturated fats, and sugars.
  • Experts say such a system could help U.S. consumers quickly determine which products are the most healthy to purchase.
  • They do note that there is a tendency for people to over-consume products that are ranked favorably, leading to weight gain and other health issues.

Sugar claims on food labels can mislead consumers into believing they’re making healthier choices than they really are, experts say.

Phrases such as “less sweet” and “without added sugar,” for example, tend to give the impression that these food items fit into a balanced diet when really they might not.

Now, an analysis from researchers at the University of Göttingen in Germany published today in the journal PLOS ONE suggests there may be a solution to this sugar confusion.

It’s called Nutri-Score, a nutritional food scoring system with increasing usage throughout Europe.

The new analysis examined data from an online survey including 1,103 German participants. Researchers said that without the Nutri-Score on labels of instant cappuccino, chocolate muesli, and an oat drink, people were misled into thinking the food choice was healthier than it was.

In contrast, when people were presented with the same food items and their Nutri-Score, researchers said misconceptions about healthiness were significantly reduced.

The researchers called for restricted use of sugar content claims and similar labels, and mandatory use of the Nutri-Score by companies that do make such claims.

The study authors said more research is needed on the effects of the Nutri-Score for additional food categories beyond sugar and in the context of other advertising claims that could mislead consumers about food healthiness.

Nutri-Score is a grading system developed to help people make healthier food choices more easily.

It is made up of a 5-point scale:

  • Letter “A” is the most favorable choice and is presented in dark green
  • Letter “B” is light green, meaning it’s still a favorable choice
  • Letter “C” is a balanced choice and is yellow
  • Letter “D” is less favorable and is orange
  • Letter “E” is the least favorable choice and is red

Healthier choices and more favorable scores are associated with a higher content of fiber, proteins, fruits, and vegetables.

Saturated fats, added sugars, and salt all contribute to a less favorable score.

“The Nutri-Score may be able to offer folks a quick way to determine if a product would be a good fit for their family,” says Amy Bragagnini, MS, RD, CSO, an oncology nutrition specialist at Trinity Health Lacks Cancer Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well as a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Consuming a healthy and well-rounded diet can help lower risk of disease and that healthy eating begins in the grocery store,” she told Healthline.

“However, picking out the right kinds of foods and beverages to enhance one’s diet can often be time-consuming and confusing,” Bragagnini noted. “Most people want to get in and out of the grocery store in a short amount of time, all the while choosing the healthiest food for their family.”

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends:

  • Men consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugar per day
  • Women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams)

Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD, a pediatric dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Healthline that the Nutri-Score system looks to be aligned with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encouraging the intake of nutrient-dense foods.

Nutri-Score may miss specific needs

Reed says different age groups have different nutrient needs and that’s not reflected in these scores.

For example, says Reed, children less than 2 years of age typically have a diet higher in fat to encourage optimal brain development.

“Therefore, if a parent chooses a product based on a Nutri-Score that indicates it is ‘low in fat,’ that may not be the best for the small child,” she explained.

“My concern would be if people don’t understand the basics of good nutrition they may rely solely on the Nutri-Score and not think critically about each of the products they are choosing,” she added.

So while filling your cart with all “A” scores is all well and good, Reed says, it can be a different reality when you get home and are met with an angry family that occasionally likes to have foods that fall in the “D-E” range.

“I would advise consumers to take the Nutri-Score into account but also think logically about the needs and desires of their family,” she said.

Watch for the ‘health halo’ effect

Another concern with using the Nutri-Score is that people may begin to utilize the “health halo” effect when purchasing “A” products, says Reed.

“People may overestimate the healthiness of a product and consume it in excess,” she said.

For example, a green smoothie drink earning an “A” may be healthy, but only if consumed in moderation.

Ultimately, consuming too much of an “A” product may lead one to take in too many calories, which may lead to unwanted weight gain anyway.

The AHA says sugar consumption in the American diet has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years.

This increase is associated with excess calorie intake without any nutritional benefit.

As such, the AHA recommends avoiding unnecessary calories that can lead to weight gain and poorer heart health by limiting the amount of added sugars you consume.

Take stock of your current sugar intake

“The best way to reduce intake of added sugar is by taking time to look at the food labels of the products you are buying,” says Bragagnini.

“I always encourage my patients to get curious about the foods currently in their house. Spend time looking at the label and figuring out an approximate baseline of how much added sugar is in their diet,” she suggests.

“The current food label will list total grams of sugar and total grams of added sugar. I generally have patients focus on the added sugar number vs. the overall sugar provided, as milk and fruit have natural fruit sugars,” she says.

Check out labels at the grocery store

The next step, says Bragagnini, is to take this knowledge to the grocery store and spend some time in the aisles to compare product labels and choose products with lower amounts of added sugar.

Slow and steady rather than all at once

Bragagnini reminds people that sugar can be difficult to quit consuming.

So, it can be helpful to slowly cut back rather than remove all added sugars at once.

Doing too much too soon can leave some people feeling unsatisfied when they eat, she explains, which may lead to overconsumption of sugary foods and drinks later.

Honor your sweet tooth

Many people have a “sweet tooth” or ongoing cravings for sweets.

Bragagnini says she tells her clients to honor their sweet tooth when they have a craving but not before stopping to take a drink of water and waiting 15 minutes.

“Often people feel cravings coming on if they are not adequately hydrated. If they still have a desire for sugar after 15 minutes, then choose something small but satisfying,” she says.

“Fruit is sweet and can be satisfying, but if someone is having a full-on sugar craving, fruit may not be the answer,” she adds.

In such cases, choosing a small, individually-wrapped chocolate candy, one scoop of good ice cream in a coffee mug, or one cookie may be the answer to their craving.”

Other ways to reduce sugar

Reed offers the following tips for reducing sugar.

  • Decrease added sugars from beverages: Replace soda and juice with water and reduce added syrups and flavorings in coffee drinks
  • Utilize the natural sweetness in fruits to flavor foods such as plain yogurt, plain oatmeal, or unsweetened cereal
  • When purchasing prepared foods, refer to the added sugars on the food label and choose foods that have less than 5 grams of added sugar per serving.
  • Prepare baked goods by replacing half to all of the sugar with unsweetened apple sauce or blended dates.