Despite honey and syrups being classed as free sugars, the same as table sugar, products containing them are often marketed as ‘healthier’ products, potentially misleading consumers. Action on Sugar are calling for clearer front of pack labelling.
In 2015 the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition advised that the term ‘free sugars’ should replace the terms 'Non Milk Extrinsic Sugars' and 'added sugars'. Free sugars encompasses all sugars added to foods by manufactures, cooks or consumers, alongside those sugars naturally present in honey, syrup and unsweetened fruit juice.
It is recommended that consumption of free sugars should not exceed 5% of total energy intake. However, according to data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey Years 7 & 8, all age groups are exceeding this recommendation. Government schemes such as the sugar tax, have been implemented in a bid to reduce the intake of sugars in the UK.
Recently, honeys and syrups have become a popular alternative to table sugar, due to an increase in the perception that they are less processed and therefore a ‘healthier’ alternative to sugar, and are often marketed it in this way.
However, alternatives such as honey and syrups are still classed as free sugars, often containing similar amounts to that of table sugar. Furthermore, the evidence of health benefits for honey are limited with no approved health and nutrition claims.
Recently, Action on Sugar analysed 218 products (102 honeys, 70 sugars and 46 syrups) from: Aldi, ASDA, The Co-operative, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. They found that honeys and syrups could be made of up to 86% and 88% of free sugars, respectively.
There is a strong concern that consumers are unknowingly adding similar amounts of sugar to their food when using honeys or syrups, thinking they are healthier alternatives to table sugar. For example, a teaspoon (7g) of Asda Extra Special Manuka Honey contained 6g sugars, similar to a teaspoon of sugar (4g).
The data also showed that despite manufactures naming honey within the product description or marketing claim, the products tended to only contain a small amount of honey, but large amounts of added sugar, in some cases up to 25 times more table sugar/syrups than honey. For example, Nature Valley Crunchy Oats & Honey (42g) cereal bars made with ‘wholegrain rolled oats and honey’ contained only 2% honey but 28.3% total sugars.
Current food label guidelines require total sugars to be declared, this value includes both free sugars and those naturally occurring in foods/drinks e.g. lactose in milk. Given that the recommendation for sugar intake is based on free sugars yet food labels display total sugars, it is no wonder why consumers can find it confusing.
Action on Sugar is calling for clearer food labelling that details free sugars and the contribution to intake; and for better education about alternatives to table sugar such as honey and syrup.
Director of Action on Sugar and Registered Nutritionist, Katharine Jenner said:
“Poor nutrition labelling, misleading marketing claims, and mixed messages from well meaning food bloggers and chefs, mean customers are rightly confused about what free sugars actually are, which products contain them, and how much they contribute to their total daily sugar intake. Too many calories from all types of sugars contributes to increasing risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, various cancers, liver disease and tooth decay, all of which have devastating effects on health and wellbeing.
“How can we be expected to make healthier choices, as suggested by the Secretary of State for Health, when we don’t even know what’s going into our food? Clearer labelling, and education about what that means, really could help us to live well for longer.”