The objective of this study was to evaluate differences in calories, nutrient content, overall healthfulness, and use of sweetener ingredients between products with and without sugar claims.
Consumers assume products with sugar claims are healthier and lower in calories. It is therefore important claims be found on comparatively healthier items. This study is a cross-sectional analysis of the University of Toronto’s 2013 Food Label Database.
Subcategories where at least 5% of products (and n ≥ 5) carried a sugar claim were included (n = 3048). Differences in median calorie content, nutrient content, and overall healthfulness, using the Food Standards Australia/New Zealand Nutrient Profiling Scoring criterion, between products with and without sugar claims, were determined.
Proportion of products with and without claims that had excess free sugar levels (≥10% of calories from free sugar) and that contained sweeteners was also determined. Almost half (48%) of products with sugar claims contained excess free sugar, and a greater proportion contained sweeteners than products without such claims (30% vs 5%, χ2 = 338.6, p < 0.0001). Overall, products with sugar claims were “healthier” and had lower median calorie, free sugar, total sugar, and sodium contents than products without claims.
At the subcategory level, reductions in free sugar contents were not always met with similar reductions in calorie contents. This study highlights concerns with regards to the nutritional composition of products bearing sugar claims.
Findings can support educational messaging to assist consumer interpretation of sugar claims and can inform changes in nutrition policies, for example, permitting sugar claims only on products with calorie reductions and without excess free sugar.