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Making Sense of 'Sugar-Free' Claims

Recent findings suggest we've rightfully become more focused about sugar's numerous problems. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men.
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Dear JJ: Labeling has become so confusing. I found a "no sugar added" cookie at my local health food store that I thought sounded healthy. It turns out they were sweetened with juice and had just as much sugar. How can I avoid this confusion when I purchase processed foods?

Recent findings suggest we've rightfully become more focused about sugar's numerous problems. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men.

Not surprisingly, we're eating much more. A Circulation study found we're averaging 22.2 teaspoons a day. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, we're eating on average 152 pounds of sugar and 146 pounds of flour (that convert to sugar) every year!

Fully aware you want your cake without that sugar impact, manufacturers have devised crafty ways to masquerade sugary processed foods as sugar-free or otherwise "healthy" to eat.

Let's be honest. You get excited when you see that sparkly starburst on the box telling you there's no sugar added in those fruit roll-ups or chocolate chip cookies, right?

I'll be frank here. These manufacturers are taking some poetic license with your health. While they give you some credit, they know if you saw a box that read "21 teaspoons of added sugar for your metabolic upheaval!" you might think twice.

So they've spent a lot of time and money testing ways to get around your sensible objections so they can manipulate you into buying as much of what they're selling as possible, guilt and worry-free. I'm not just talking big-name corporations either. Pay a visit to your favorite health-minded grocery store and count how many health claims you find on processed foods.

Manufacturers have made all your favorite treats "without added sugar," so you could have that cookie and not feel guilty. That health halo means you're more likely to reach for a second or third, delivering a potentially whopping sugar impact.

Just because a manufacturer labels a food or drink "no added sugar," that in no way means that it doesn't contain sugar. Simply put: No added sugar does not mean sugar-free. As you learned, it can also mean they've used fruit juice concentrate as their sweetener, which essentially becomes fructose without the fiber.

Hyman says flour (yes, even wheat flour) converts to sugar, so many of the ingredients in your no-sugar-added cookie will turn into sugar as soon as you start munching.

Labels can be misleading. You don't see labels on fruits and vegetables or nuts and seeds, do you? That's where you want to gravitate to in grocery stores. If you opt for processed foods, become a mindful consumer and follow these five strategies:

1. Become familiar with sugar's numerous disguises. My friend Jonathan Bailor lists 57 sneaky sugars here.
2. Scrutinize ingredients. Never mind that the box says "no added sugar" or whatever. Turn it over and find the ingredient lists, which reveal the real truth.
3. Be aware of serving sizes. Tiny portions allow manufacturers to keep sugar lists speciously low. Account that you'll probably have two or three servings.
4. Artificial sweeteners are no free pass. Among their many problems, artificial sweeteners adversely affect gut flora and your body's response to glucose.
5. Consider whether a low-sugar impact whole food wouldn't satisfy you equally. If you're craving something crunchy, try some celery and almond butter or slow-roasted nuts. I realize processed foods simply become more convenient or available sometimes, but nature-packaged will always beat a manufacturer-packaged food.

What strategy would you add here to become more aware of sneaky sugars and other manufacturer's tricks when you buy processed foods? Share yours below.