Reading Food Labels: How to Avoid GMO Sugar

Reading-Food-Labels-SeriesWhile we try to focus our diet primarily on real food – meat, vegetables and fruits with some gluten free grains thrown in – there are times when I do need to purchase something in a box, bag or can. That’s when my label reading skills really come into play.

Over the years, I have become an avid label reader. I’m sure I get some curious glances at the grocery store as I pick up one box after another, reading the labels trying to find the one with the least despicable ingredients.

Sometimes I walk away empty-handed because I can’t bring myself to put any of the products in my cart. Other times, I sacrifice my ideals because I feel I have no other choice at that particular moment. But at least I can say I made an educated decision, even if it’s not always one I’m happy with.

Getting Started with Label Reading

If you are first starting out with reading labels, it can seem overwhelming. What do you look for? What are some of the red flags? What are things you want to see?

To make it easier for new label readers, I’m working on a series of posts that shares some simple tips on how to read labels so you know if some of my red flag ingredients are in the product.

Some things I look for is that the product contains no trans fats, foods heavily sprayed with pesticides or ingredients that trigger my food sensitivities. But one of my latest obsessions has been spotting hidden GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

The first ingredient I’m going to cover is one that has become an unfortunate staple in the US diet – sugar.


Not only is too much sugar not good for your health, but much of the sugar in the US food supply now comes from sugar beets that have been genetically modified to resist glyphosate, more commonly known as Round Up from our “friends” at Monsanto.

In March 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) deregulated the Roundup Ready sugar beets (RRSB) after determining that RRSB are unlikely to pose a plant pest risk. After a lawsuit from the Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and two organic seed groups, APHIS confirmed its decision of nonregulated status in July 2012.

Since then, GMO sugar beet production has taken off. According to Take Part, 95% of US sugar beets are grown from GMO seeds. This Huffington Post article states that 54% of the sugar produced in the US comes from sugar beets; the remaining 46% is sourced from sugar cane.

It’s pretty scary that more than half of the sugar supply in this country comes from GMO sugar beets since studies have shown that glyphosate causes cancer and is reducing the bee and butterfly population. Without bees, plants that provide us with food can’t get pollinated – and then what happens?

Tips for Reading the Label

So how do you know if the sugar in that food product is from GMO sugar beets? If the ingredient list simply says, “sugar,” it’s a good bet that the sugar is made from GMO sugar beets.

When reading labels, you always want to look for cane sugar. If you don’t see the word cane, put the product back on the shelf and move on.

This also goes for granulated white sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar, etc. The package needs to say cane or you’re likely purchasing a GMO food product.

If you’ve noticed more and more labels proudly proclaiming “pure cane sugar,” on the front of the label, it’s because of the explosion of GMO sugar beets onto the market.

Check Your Cabinets

Now that you know the simple trick of looking for “cane sugar” rather than “sugar,” I challenge you to go look in your pantry and inspect the foods you have on hand. How many of them likely contain GMO sugar? Will you read labels more carefully next time you shop?

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  1. Jennifer Holovack says

    I really appreciate this post and any on helping consumers be smarter and make more educated choices! Keep up the good work!!!!

  2. hollylynn says

    We just can’t win. Too bad the regulators don’t care about the future. I look forward to more in the series.

  3. Jessica Emricko says

    What if a product says “pure cane sugar” on the front but the ingredients list only says “sugar”? Is it really ALL cane sugar or can beet sugar still be in it?

    • says

      Is it a bag of sugar or a packaged food? If it’s a bag of sugar, I don’t think they can label it as pure cane sugar if it’s not… but I always err on the side of caution. If it’s packaged food, I’d be extra cautious.

  4. Teresa Hines says

    My daughter may have a food allergy to sugar beet. I have been doing a great deal of reading and this is just making me sick. This is going to be a long road ahead for her.

  5. Susan says

    Thank you for this post. Here I thought that if the label indicated sugar – it was sugar! I’ve been avoiding sucrose, corn syrup, etc, but obviously I still have so much to learn!

  6. B says

    According to CDC data, there has been a precipitous increase autism spectrum diagnosis from 2008 to present. With the amt of sugar in our diets, especially children, a connection between the increased incidence of autism spectrum disorders and the prevalence of GMO sugar beet/glyphosate in our food needs to be ruled out.

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