I have a question for you all today: If the amount of "added sugars" in a product were added to the food label in teaspoons and not grams, would this impact your decision to buy/eat that food? For example, if a soup can showed that the added sugars = 3 teaspoons, would that effect your purchase, yes or no?
Consumers have wanted sugars to be separated out between sugars vs. added sugars on nutrition labels. During that interim frustration, we've seen added sugar measured out in teaspoons, a much different unit of measurement than grams.
A push by the dietitian who posted the question above on Facebook speaks to a larger issue: whether we should change the measurement of added sugars from grams to teaspoons.
The question isn't well-worded, though the dietitian got positive responses. The better question is whether those same consumers want to do math every time they read a nutrition label.
Nutrition labels list items by grams: fat, saturated fat, fiber, carbohydrates, protein, and sugars. Smaller measurements, such as sodium and potassium, come in milligrams.
Listing every other category in one measurement (grams) and then placing in added sugars under a different measurement (teaspoons) is destined to confuse even math experts in a grocery store.
Let's start with one of my favorite subjects and not one for most people: math.
How many grams are in a teaspoon? 4. Though some Internet sources say 5. A gram is a mass measurement; a teaspoon is a volume measurement. Preciseness — something you really need — won't work here.
Let's assume 4 grams per teaspoon for the moment.
We have a pretend product with 40 g of carbohydrates and 26 g of sugars. The label reads 4 teaspoons of added sugars (included in the 26 g of sugars). How much of the sugars are added sugars?
If your head hurts to figure this out, and your kids aren't around to help you with the math, imagine doing this in the grocery store.
The answer is that 16 of the 26 grams are added sugars, and 10 of the 26 grams are milk/fruit sugars.
Since a gram is a smaller measurement than a teaspoon, we don't actually know that we are getting 16 grams of added sugars.
4 grams = 1 teaspoon and therefore 16 grams = 4 teaspoons. The serving could have 14 grams of added sugar = 3.5 teaspoons, which would be rounded up to 4 teaspoons. 17 grams of added sugar = 4.25 teaspoons, which would be rounded down to 4 teaspoons.
So 4 teaspoons of added sugar on a label could equal anywhere from 14-17 grams of added sugar per serving.
Measuring in grams gives food companies an incentive to reduce added sugars. If a food company has a product with 14 g of added sugars per serving, the teaspoon model allows the company to add 3 g of added sugars per serving and not get penalized.
If a container has 4 servings, that would reflect an additional 12 g of added sugars.
The teaspoon argument could point out that labels could contain fractions of teaspoons. Imagine the math horror if we went with 3.5 teaspoons vs. 4 teaspoons or if a label used the fraction 3½ that would be very small to read on a nutrition label.
We have to remember that a teaspoon of sugar is close to 4 grams, so even that measurement is off. If a liquid sweetener source (we're looking at you, high-fructose corn syrup) is used, that throws off the conversion as well (mass/volume difference).
Math will still need to be involved for those who have come to measure in teaspoons of sugar rather than grams. The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars: for most women, 6 teaspoons of sugar; for men, 9 teaspoons.
With a 4/1 conversion, men can handle 36 grams of added sugar; women, 24 grams of added sugar. So the 3 grams difference in that 14-17 grams scenario matters.
Added sugars should have been a part of the label long before now. Measuring sugar in teaspoons is fine for coffee or tea. Using teaspoons for added sugars in a sea of grams threatens to blow back some of the potential gains of added sugars on a nutrition label.
The more confused the consumer is, the more likely they won't use the information provided. And then the food companies win.