You hit on it in the question – lawyers and marketing people working together. It doesn’t mean “no sugar”, it just means they didn’t *add* any. For example, fruit juice has just as much sugar per serving in it as a soda. But you can say “no sugar added” for the fruit juice. (and it’s just as bad for you as the soda). You can also stuff something full of all kinds of artificial sweeteners and still say you didn’t add any sugar.
Like any health claim you’ll on food packaging, it’s usually quickly debunked by reading the back of the package to find out what the real story is, and even then, you may have to do some detective work.
Other “weasel words” and bogus claims:
“Made with <real fruit juice/whole grains/whatever trendy thing>” – Usually means there’s a token/minuscule amount in the product in order to make the claim
“GMO-Free” (and variants) – breeding methods are irrelevant to the end product. I’ve seen this one on *salt*.
“Organic” (When used in a way to imply it’s healthier) – Organic refers to production methods, not nutrition.
“Fat Free” – there are specific legal definitions for this, and you can call something fat free when it has fat in it. Cooking spray, for example, is pure fat, and yet it’s legally “fat free”. This term also usually means there are all kinds of other ingredients to make up for lack of fat in both taste and texture, usually sugars. I’ve seen “A Fat Free Food” on candy.
For that matter, “<anything>-free”. There’s a reason for ingredient lists – listing all the things that AREN’T in something is absurd.
Anything with the word “Natural” in it. This term is utterly meaningless in food processing. Everything is natural, including the gasoline you put in your car.
And don’t get worried when you can’t pronounce an ingredient. That has no bearing on its nutrition or safety.
As a general rule, if a package makes a health claim, I automatically assume it’s bogus. The marketing folks are far more interested in selling you the product. If it comes in a package, it’s already lost much of its nutrition (and only sometimes do they put any back).
Ian Beyer, Raised on an organic farm.