Any expert on food chemistry here? Can sugar not be added but transformed from carbohydrates?

Any expert on food chemistry here?

Just a question is still roaming my mind and ChatGPT is of no help: I bought a “vegan milk” recently, marketed as “no added sugar” and where the ingredient list reads as: Water, Spelt (7%), Rice (6%), Hazelnuts (3%), Oats, Sunflower oil and Sea salt.

Now, my question is how the hell it can end up with 5.4% of sugars (out of total 11% of carbohydrates) ? According to my computations, sugars (mono and disaccharides) should be maximum 0.4-0.5%.

The sugar is well present (confirmed by the company and my taste :slight_smile: ), but the company also confirmed me the “no added sugar” statement.

Now, my question: is it possible to break the carbohydrates in sugars during the production process, in order to give a more palatable taste to the product ?
Is it allowed (in the EU) to market something like “no sugar added”… and then (intentionally) create it during production ?

I would seem more likely to me that the increased sugar percentage is caused by removing other molecules rather than transforming longer chains into simple sugars. For example, perhaps the product is boiled to remove excess water, thereby increasing the total percentage of sugar without adding any?

Another possibility, more along the lines of what you’re thinking, could be that they use a process similar to how rice syrup is made. The question would be whether the company would be required to list enzymes on the ingredient list.

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But the product has 11% of carbs, so sugar alone is about 50% of the carbs… that is the odd part…

Not exactly food chemistry expert, just happened to discuss recently this question with colleagues.

What a typical buyer of vegan food buys is not just food, it is the feeling of doing something good, isn’t it?

Adding sugar would improve taste to the point of making the drink palatable, but reduce the contents of good conscience in the product. Explicit “not adding sugar”, on the opposite, increases the good conscience contents, whereas producing sugars out of the starch from rice and spelt is conscience neutral, except for the few attentive customers with scientific background.

The enzymes to catalyze the reaction, if any contained in the end product, will be subsumed under proteins.

Bon appétit !

Indeed… I had a chat with food experts and they confirm me that it is the industrial process that transforms the carbs in sugar (where it is unclear the relative importance of taste vs solubility and other desired outcomes, i.e. the intentionality).
In this case, the output sugar is 10 times the input sugar. I believe this is very different that the “banana” example where the sugar is “naturally” present. Probably there should be a threshold above which the sugar should be considered “added” by the food processing and the label “without added sugar” banned…


Similarly, a lot of juices with “no added sugar” are just clarified concentrated apple juice with a little bit of another flavor

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Technically no sugar added; just something else transformed into sugar during processing.

“No sugar added” doesn’t mean it’s “natural” in any way.

…And “natural” isn’t always good or even better, even though most people make this association.


Also not a food chemistry expert, but I have seen a hint like this on oat milk packages (roughly translated)

no added sugar (the product contains sugar due to fermentation)

It seems to be pretty common that oat milk is produced by adding enzymes to soaked oat flakes, precisely to turn some of the starch into sugar. Might also be what happened in your product.

Well, my point is that it is still “added”… depends on the definition of “added”… noone said it has to be in stoichiometric meaning… by processing the food in a certain way you “add” to the product texture, colour, taste… and in this case sugars.

This is the exact regulation in the EU for the “no added sugar” claim (Annex to Regulation (EC) 1924/2006):

A claim stating that sugars have not been added to a food, and any claim likely to have the same meaning for the consumer, may only be made where the product does not contain any added mono- or disaccharides or any other food used for its sweetening properties. If sugars are naturally present in the food, the following indication should also appear on the label: ‘CONTAINS NATURALLY OCCURRING SUGARS’

yes that’s the case, but I don’t think there should be labelled “no added sugar”… in my case, that is also written in very big text, and there is no reference to the fermentation…

The regulation you quoted excludes this from addition. The key is “other food”, we don’t say sugar cubes have “added sugar” despite processing and purifying some plants to hell and back.

Similar discussions can be had about lactose free cow milk, which in most cases tastes sweeter than regular cow milk because the enzyme (that lactose intolerant people lack in sufficient quantity) that splits lactose into glucose and some other sugars is added during production. In that case though, the original ingredient is fixed and total sugar content in a fairly narrow, known region. In other cases where original ingredients can be tuned to contain a lot of latent sugars, the no added sugar label can be somewhat deceptive if technically correct. Most of the carbs will be turned into sugar anyway even though whether the transformation happens in the body or in production has nontrivial implications for the rate of change of blood sugar. Nutrient tables give a more complete picture but probably a lot of people don’t read them and buy based on the tagline (feeling safe when it says no added sugar).

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I’m not sure about the EU-wide rules, but in Germany there is a distinction between

  1. “no sugars added”, which means what it says, but often some starch is transformed to sugar
  2. “no sugar”, which is some legal limit on sugar content (0.5%?)
  3. no claims – possibly sugar added

I’m not sure about how rational this is, but people do care a lot about the difference, imo justified by both tradition and some flimsy protection from the worst excesses of the food industry.

Take e.g. beer: Starch partially transformed to sugar (malting!) partially transformed to alcohol: Fine, yum. Sugar added: bah, used to be illegal in Germany (until some court decision a couple of years ago).

Or take wine – would be a huge scandal (outside of various post-processing exceptions like mulled wine).

Food allergies are also a big point :frowning:

That’s silly and on them. You always read both ingredients and nutrient tables (or you read neither). Especially people for whom this is a safety concern (eg diabetics).


Processed vegan food items usually have allergens, peanuts, nuts, soy, and gluten are extensively used for protein and texture. (Of course there are exceptions.)

That’s a bit irrational though. While excessive sugar consumption should be avoided, a minor amount of sugar is fine when consumed occasionally, especially with an active lifestyle.

Except for allergies, the “has no X” labels are uninformative, not unlike applying an iszero to your data before analysis.

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BTW recently learned about an emerging disease Orthorexia nervosa, which is an obsessive preoccupation with eating healthy food.

One possibility is that the spelt is malted and mashed with the other grains, as would be done prior to fermentation when making beer. Malted spelt has enough enzyme activity to convert some starches to sugars. It is available for brewing. The only additional things that are needed for malting and mashing are water, heat, and time. It might be cheaper to add enzymes but, at least in theory, this can be done purely by processing those ingredients appropriately and without adding enzymes beyond what would be in the spelt after malting.

It certainly isn’t an informative label. I would have thought they would have had to give a few more clues on what they did, either listing the spelt as being malted or listing any added enzymes.

Yeah, you always have to read the ingredients / trace-contaminants lists and choose appropriately, that’s life with dietary restrictions.

However, as the father of a young kid with milk allergy, I’m super grateful that the “palatable vegan milk replacement” industry exists and has a large variety of okay-ish stuff to sample from, and that this is sold cheaply in supermarkets instead of specialty stores / pharmacies.

Especially since the implied dietary restrictions often extend to the mother as long as you breastfeed (and infant formula for allergics to hooved-animal-milk-protein sucks. “Normal” vegan milk replacement != infant formula).


Reminds me of XKCD’s “Universal label”: