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John Oliver to Big Sugar: #ShowUsYourPeanuts

Halloween week is primetime for chocolates and candies, lollipops and licorice sticks. That also means it’s the ideal week for some real talk about sugar.

You may have heard about John Oliver’s challenge to food companies (watch it below) on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver called out the confusing and often illogical food rules that dictate food labeling, especially when it comes to total sugars. He wants food companies and manufacturers to be more transparent about the sugar they add to their food. And for that, we say, “Here! Here!”

Earlier this year, the FDA proposed that food manufacturers begin including an "Added Sugars" line on food labels. This is a big step in the right direction. Natural sugars, like those found in fruit and dairy, aren’t the same as the crystallized white sugar scooped into pies and cakes. Natural sugars are often tied to other healthy nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Added refined sugars, on the other hand, are basically just added calories. Knowing the total sugar number as well as the added sugar number will help us understand a food’s healthfulness.

Almost all food manufacturers list total sugar numbers on their product labels. But as you can see in the chart below (click to enlarge), knowing how many grams of sugar are in a food—especially a prepared or packaged food—doesn’t tell the whole sugar story.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Take Skittles candies for example, a popular Halloween treat. A 1/4 cup serving has 30 grams of sugar. Right next to it, one mango, which also has 30 grams of sugar. In the case of Skittles, it’s all added sugar. The mango is all natural.

Let’s not kid anyone by pretending the nutritional quality of those two foods is the same just because they have the same amount of sugar. We all know which is better for you.

On the far right, a berry smoothie with 75 grams of sugar. That’s 300 calories from sugar alone. Major bust, right? Well, most smoothies are made with fruit, yogurt, and maybe a little milk and are filled with fiber and protein, too. All natural foods with all natural sources of sugar.

Another important point from Oliver’s story: Grams aren’t always easily understood. What is a gram anyway?! We live in a teaspoon, tablespoon, ounce, and pound world. If people are going to understand what they’re eating, they need to see it in terms they get.

Oliver suggests measuring sugar in circus peanuts, the bright orange, spongy, and sugary confections that I’m not entirely sure are actual foodstuffs. While a brilliant and very visual idea (see below), maybe we can simplify things and just require companies to list easy-to-understand teaspoons.

One serving of our Peanut Butter Caramel Corn has 10 grams of sugar, or 2 peanuts.

If you tell someone their 20-ounce bottle of soda has 65 grams of added sugar, it doesn’t compute. But if you tell someone that same soda has 16.25 teaspoons, or almost 1/3 cup of added sugar, they get it. And they know it’s not good.

Already, some groups, such as the American Heart Association, have released recommendations for daily added sugar numbers, and they’re in teaspoons. (For women, it’s 6 teaspoons; for men, 9). Teaspoons we get. Teaspoons we can understand. It’s time for food companies to get on board.

So then why doesn't Cooking Light list sugar in its recipes? Read our answer.