Deciphering the Label: Cranberry Sauce

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One of the arguments frequently made in favor of home cooking is that it allows you to control the amount of sugar, fat, and salt you add to foods.  As a result less of those ingredients tend to end up in meals you cook from home than in meals made from processed foods or eaten in restaurants.

From time to time I’m greeted with skepticism when I make this claim.  Is it really true that home cooked food has less sugar, fat, and salt, I’m asked?  The answer is a resounding “yes.”  Here’s an example of how I know.

Cranberry Sauce Label Highlighted 2A few days ago, I picked up a can of jellied cranberry sauce from my local grocery store.  To the left is the nutrition facts label from that can.  The relevant portions (which I’ve highlighted in yellow) are the serving size, the grams of sugar per serving, and the ingredients.

Let’s start with the ingredients.  The label lists four of them —  cranberries, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and water.  Since both high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup are different types of added sugar, in simplified form the ingredients are really just cranberries, sugar, and water.

Now let’s turn to the other two items of information I’ve highlighted in the label.  They indicate that there are 24 grams of sugars in every ¼-cup serving of cranberry sauce from the can.  Not very useful information, you may be thinking.

To make sense of that information, you need to know two other things.  First, the line for sugars in the “Amount Per Serving” section of the label doesn’t distinguish between sugars that are naturally occurring in the items in the ingredients list, such as cranberries, and added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup.  Both are included.  However, since cranberries are naturally very low in sugar, in this case it’s safe to assume that most of the 24 grams of sugars in each serving of cranberry sauce comes from the two added sugars.

Second, always remember that one teaspoon of sugar equals four grams.  This allows you to translate the nutrition label’s 24 grams of sugars per ¼-cup serving into six teaspoons of sugar per ¼-cup serving.   A lot more understandable now, right?

Now let’s figure out how much sugar is in the same size serving of my Cranberry Citrus Relish.  To do this, I first need to obtain some data from the SuperTracker database.  The SuperTracker is a free online interactive tool introduced two years ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help individuals keep track the nutritional content of the food they eat.  One of its main features is a database of nutritional information for food.

According to the SuperTracker, a 12 ounce bag of cranberries (3 cups) has 12 grams of naturally occurring sugar, four tangerines have a total of 36 grams of naturally occurring sugar, and ½ cup of granulated sugar (24 teaspoons) is 96 grams of added sugar.  This gives me a total of 144 grams of sugar in a single batch of my recipe of Cranberry Citrus Relish.  Since my recipe yielded two cups of cranberry relish, or eight ¼-cup servings, by dividing 144 grams of sugar by eight servings, I’m able to show that my recipe of Cranberry Citrus Relish has only 18 grams of sugar per serving.  That’s one-quarter less sugar than the canned version.

Contrast

Now you might be thinking that one-quarter less sugar isn’t worth the trouble of making your own.  You’re busy.  It takes time to cook from scratch.  Does it really make that much of a difference?  Yes, it does.  In this era of rampant obesity, food allergies, and diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, even a small reduction in sugar can help by reducing the total number of calories consumed each day while at the same time retraining your palate to prefer less sweet food.

Also, approximately one-third of the sugar is in the form of naturally occurring sugar from the tangerines, which add other important nutrients to the dish such as vitamins A and C and various B vitamins, several minerals including calcium, copper, and potassium, and fiber.   Naturally occurring sugar is always preferable to added sugar, which provides calories but no nutrients.

Finally, you have a lot more flexibility when you make your own.  For example, you could tweak the amount of sugar called for in my Cranberry Citrus Relish recipe to suit your own taste, or you could add other flavors that you prefer, for example pears instead of tangerines or nutmeg instead of cinnamon.  By making your own, you get to decide the nutritional and flavor content of the final product, not a food company that is limited to selling only a handful of variations of its products to millions of people.

Besides, I think my version is just a whole lot prettier than what comes out of the can!

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