Ask the Experts: Food Labels; Club Soda

Q. Is it true that a food package that claims to be free of a certain ingredient, such as fat or sugar, can still have small amounts of those items?

A. You’re right that a “sugar free” product isn’t necessarily free of sugar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does, however, set limits on these things. For instance, to be “sugar free” it can’t contain more than 0.5 milligrams (mg) of sugar per serving. It also can’t contain a stand-alone item that is a sugar. For instance, a product that includes a small amount of fruit may contain a little sugar in the fruit. But a product can’t call itself “sugar free” if one of its ingredients is listed as corn syrup or sucrose or some other sugar.

Likewise, a food listed as “fat free” can contain no more than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.

The sneakier claims are the “reduced sugar” and “reduced fat” enticements for health-conscious consumers. To meet those standards, according to the FDA, a product simply has to have 25 percent less sugar or 25 percent less fat than the original product. So if you’re starting with an item that is already high in sugar or high in fat, going the “reduced” route may still mean you’re consuming more of the stuff you don’t want.

Foods with reduced fat may have more sugar to make up for the lost flavor. The reverse is true, too. A “reduced sugar” product may have bumped up its fat content to satisfy consumers’ taste buds. If you’re counting calories, fat grams, sugar, or carbs, always read the labels and look at the numbers yourself.

Q. Is club soda as healthy as drinking regular water when it comes to staying hydrated?

A. If you’re a fan of club soda or sparkling water, know that a glass of a fizzy water is the same as the flat stuff in terms of meeting your recommended fluid intake. Beverages packed with sugar, such as juice and soda, aren’t as hydrating, because you lose some hydration with the digestion of calories and sugar. Caffeinated drinks also have diuretic properties, so they’re less effective at keeping you hydrated, too.

But sparkling water, with all the bubbles aside, is still water. Your body will use it to stay hydrated just as it would water without all the fizz and excitement.

There is one consideration, however. Carbonated water, as its name suggests, is made fizzy by the addition of carbon dioxide. That compound turns into carbonic acid, which makes the drink zesty, but not super for your teeth. The more acidic a drink is the more likely it is to wear away tooth enamel.

Fortunately, carbonated water isn’t nearly as acidic as soda or coffee or fruit juice. Of course, if you add a twist of lemon or lime to your sparkling water you’re upping the acid content a little.

But if your choice is soda from a can or a glass of carbonated water, the non-soda option is always better.

If you don’t want to give up carbonated water, just alternate it with regular water during the day. And always maintain good dental hygiene, such as brushing your teeth two or three times daily. 

–Orli R. Etingin, M.D., Editor-in-Chief

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