“The Sugar Check” – is that all you need?

Sockerchecken AB (The Sugar Check) is a Swedish company that has developed a system for labeling food based on added sugar content. The color scale goes from green, which stands for minimal, over yellow and red to black, which stands for a large amount of added sugar. The company’s business concept is to offer grocery stores the labeling system, making it easier for consumers to choose products with little added sugar. And that’s good…or what?

There is no question that many of us overeat refined sugar, which is bad for our health. It is also a fact that it is often difficult to read how much added sugar is in ordinary foods. Therefore, a label that can increase the level of awareness is, of course, a good thing. But at the same time, I see risks with a system that reports only one ingredient in a food. Let me explain why. 

In 2019 the prestigious scientific journal The Lancet published one of the most extensive studies on the connections between food and health. The study, which covers 195 countries and data from 1990 to 2017, states that the three most common food-related causes of death are, in turn, too high salt intake, too low fiber intake, and too low consumption of fruits and vegetables. The Swedish Food Agency has come to the same conclusion by compiling a tremendous amount of research data. It is this holistic view that forms the basis for the Agency’s keyhole symbol. Its criteria are fiber content, sugar and salt content, and the proportion of healthy (unsaturated) fat. While I think it’s a good thing to know what our food contains, I’m a little afraid that a label like the Sugar Check will simplify just a little too much. In the worst case, it may even signal that it is ok to eat many things that are definitely not healthy in large quantities.

The green-labeled dessert cheese and the Italian sausages may contain only a little sugar but are completely devoid of fiber. And may have lots of salt and saturated fat. The fat-dripping crisps and the white bread that makes the blood sugar rush even faster than pure sugar will probably also get a green light. But the raw-stirred lingonberries will get a red alert, despite their richness in dietary fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. The Sugar Check also labels foods with artificial sweeteners – such as soft drinks – as green. This is extra unfortunate since research indicates that many sweeteners can increase sugar cravings and be harmful to the gut flora. I am actually of the opinion that sugar is better. We should just not eat so much. In general, I am for a holistic view. Serving a sourdough sandwich with a little jam, lingonberries with the meatballs or soda and buns for the kids sometimes is not dangerous. It is, as a research colleague of mine usually points out, always a question of dose. That is how much we eat of something, and how often. 

The purpose of the Sugar Check is commendable. But to get a more comprehensive picture of what is more or less healthy, we must see more dimensions than just the added sugar. Thinking one step further, it would be just as motivated with separate labeling systems for other criteria. The confusion could be total.

The keyhole symbol mentioned above is not perfect, but the best I’ve seen so far. The great thing about it is that it makes it easier to choose the healthiest products in their respective categories. A high-fiber bread, an unsweetened yogurt, a jam with a high fruit content, or a portion of frozen ready-made food with fine fatty acids. I just wish more producers used the keyhole symbol so that it had a real impact. 

Finally, I cannot help but reflect on how little research support is reported on the Sugar Check’s website. Under the heading “What do the researchers say,” there is a video with ONE researcher and no links to relevant research articles. 

The researcher who speaks is admittedly well-reputed. She says this is true, but in this context, more knowledge about sugar and its effects should be offered. For example, from the abundance of research articles and studies on the subject, and are very easy to find. 

After all, the Sugar Check claims to be all about consumer awareness. 

Read more:

Link to article in The Lancet

Link to the keyhole symbol (Swedish Food agency´s website)

Link to article in Nature scientific journal about effects of artificial sweeteners

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