Food labelling legislation requires the declaration of total sugars, but the focus of health policy is non-milk extrinsic sugars (sometimes referred to as NMES or free sugars), which excludes the sugars present in fruit, vegetables and milk.
NMES contribute to more than the recommended 10% of calorie intake in all age groups. But identifying NMES is not easy, since food label information captures all forms of sugars.
The risk is that sugar information on foods, such as fruit salads, milk and plain yogurt, will be misinterpreted as meaning sugar has been added and such foods should be limited.
It is also often assumed that removing NMES cuts calories. This is typically the case with drinks, but in reformulated foods – especially carbohydrate-based dry foods like cereals – calories per 100g often don’t change, because starch gives the same amount of energy as sugars. Although, the product may not be as sweet.
Calories may even increase if a fat-rich ingredient replaces the sugars.
Cutting NMES and cutting calories are both important messages and muddling these probably won’t help consumers eat more healthily and may even cause confusion.