When the new food labels roll out in a year or two, a 20 ounce Pepsi will have to say it contains 130% of your daily value of added sugar. Yogurts will have to call out how much of their sugar is added, so we can’t kid ourselves that the sweetness all comes from the fruit. A lot of food companies fought the change, but they lost.
Yes, sugar industry, you are right: Added sugars are made of the same stuff as natural sugars. But the FDA’s new labels are about health, not about getting the right answer on a chemistry quiz. It’s really useful to know which foods contain a ton of added sugars.
Sugar Is Just Empty Calories—but That’s the Whole Problem
“Sugar is sugar, regardless of its source, and it’s treated the same way by the body whether you add a spoonful of it to your coffee or drink a glass of juice,” the American Beverage Association wrote last year, when there was still some chance the FDA might change their mind. This is true: sugar is sugar, whether it comes from sugar cane or corn syrup or a homegrown strawberry.
Other industry groups rallied around this quibble to fight the “added sugars” label—the Sugar Association and the American Bakers Association, to name just a few. They also complained that consumers might have trouble understanding the labels, that the difference would be impossible to enforce, that Europe doesn’t label added sugars, and a million other points that don’t really matter. The FDA, in response, produced an epic smackdown of a document that addresses these concerns, point by point.
To the lack of a direct link between sugar (versus other calories) and obesity:
We are not establishing or relying on a direct link to obesity from added sugars intake for the general population. There is adequate evidence that the U.S. population consumes excess calories from added sugars, above the discretionary calories permitted within a recommended caloric intake.
In other words, they’re not saying sugar is evil, just that it’s empty calories. They go on to say that if you’re trying to eat 2,000 calories, it’s pretty much impossible to get enough healthy, nutrient-dense food when you’re spending more than 200 of those calories on pure sugar.
In a twist on the industry’s beloved “sugar can be part of a healthy diet” message, the FDA concludes:
Thus, by requiring the added sugars declaration on the Nutrition Facts label, we will give consumers a tool they need to include added sugars as part of a healthy dietary pattern.
So, added sugars aren’t single-handedly responsible for making us gain weight or get sick. But if we can avoid added sugars, we’ll be able to eat healthier overall.
Labeling Added Sugars Shows Us What Food Companies Are Doing
The sugar in a Coke is no secret: it’s all there for taste. But in many products, we may not realize how much sugar is added just to make things sweet and tasty. Even if we flip a package over to see the amount of total sugar, it’s hard to know if that’s “too much” sugar.
The Dietary Guidelines released earlier this year (by the USDA and HHS, no relation to the FDA) finally set a limit on added sugars. So now we know how much is too much: if a strawberry yogurt has 39 percent of our daily added sugar, well, that’s a lot.
Since those new labels won’t be on shelves for a while, here’s how you can get a sneak peek on those added sugar values. The USDA’s SuperTracker has a database of foods, and their information includes the number of calories from added sugar. Just divide by 200 calories—or, as a shortcut, halve the number of calories and that gives you the percent. So, 78 calories from added sugar means 39 percent of the daily value. Here are a few examples:
Sugary foods are scattered all over the supermarket (yes, even Whole Foods). According to a recent study published in the Lancet, around 60 percent of packaged foods contain some amount of added sugar—maybe a little, maybe a lot. You can spot them in the ingredient list, but not every form of sugar is obvious. Agave sweetener and brown rice syrup are among the lesser-known sugar sources. That’s why the new labels are so important.
The Battle Over Added Sugars (and Your Health) Isn’t Over Yet
Of course, now that we know what’s up, manufacturers will probably start changing their products. One of the industry’s talking points in opposition to the proposed sugar labeling was that it would cost a lot to reformulate products once we catch on to how much sugar we’re actually eating. Perhaps they mean they’ll make products less sweet, but they’re probably also looking for sneakier sources of sweetness.
The FDA chose to count 100% juice as only containing natural sugars, so a bottle of juice—whether from concentrate or not—will contribute zero percent of your daily value for added sugars. (The World Health Organization disagrees, defining “free sugars” to include juice). That said, fruit juice concentrates are now considered a sweetener if they’re not diluted back to their original strength. That would seem to eliminate the most obvious loophole, but don’t underestimate human creativity.
For example, just this month, General Mills was granted a patent for a yogurt-based food additive, which it notes “can be utilized as a…sweetening agent.” The FDA decided to exempt dairy-derived additives from the definition of added sugars.
Because natural and added sugars are chemically the same, there’s an additional problem: it’s not easy to test whether a company is following the rules by analyzing a food product. The FDA says that companies will have to keep records to track how much added sugars they use. Laboratory techniques do exist that can tell the difference between corn, cane, and beet sugars (the main sources of added sugar), but they’re not in common use. Will food companies cheat? We’ll have to wait and see.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.