But we’ll have to wait two years (or longer) for manufacturers to comply.
American consumers will (some day) be able to tell at-a-glance how much added sugar is included in the processed foods we buy, the result of new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration.
In the revised labels, serving sizes will more closely reflect the amounts of food that we eat. If a package is in-between sizes (think a 20 oz bottle of soda), it must include the calorie and nutrition data as though it were a single serving, since that’s how it is normally consumed.
The most controversial requirement is revealing the amount of “added sugar.” This represents any sugars in the processed food that were not present when the food was in raw form.
Sugar is considered “empty” calories because it provides energy but no other other nutrients our bodies need for good health.
If you take on the sugar industry, you will have a political battle on your hands:
“When you take on Big Sugar, you take on a huge political money operation,” Rep. Mark Steven Kirk from Illinois said back in 2007. It’s just as true [in 2014]. The industry has doled out nearly $4 million in contributions [in 2014]. The political givers range from farmers to candy-makers, and influence everything from sugar farm subsidies to public school lunch program policies…
Between 2005 and 2010, added sugar was responsible for roughly 13 percent of the average American’s diet, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s clearly not going to cut it. Recent studies have tied added sugars to a number of health related risks, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity—the three of which are more prevalent today than ever before.
How much sugar is too much sugar?
Last year, the World Health Organization recommended that adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their diet. Free sugars is a larger category than added sugars. Free sugars include sugars that are added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. It does not include sugars in fresh milk, fruits or vegetables.
WHO points out that added sugars often get into our diet from things we don’t think of as “sweet.”
Much of the sugars consumed today are “hidden” in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, 1 tablespoon of ketchup contains around 4 grams (around 1 teaspoon) of free sugars.
WHO is not alone.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that added sugars make up no more than 10 percent of our daily calories.
The American Heart Association breaks down its recommendations by gender:
[Limit] the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons.
Research released earlier this year noted the gross increase in added sugar in our diets:
Consumption of added sugar, including all sugars added in processing or preparing foods, among Americans aged 2 years or older increased from an average of 235 calories per day in 1977-1978 to 318 calories per day in 1994-1996…
Major sources of added sugar in American adults’ diet included sugar-sweetened beverages (37.1%), grain-based desserts (13.7%), fruit drinks (8.9%), dairy desserts (6.1%), and candy (5.8%).
And contrary to the protestations of the industry, excess dietary sugar is associated with poor health:
A higher percentage of calories from added sugar is associated with significantly increased risk of [cardiovascular disease, CVD] mortality. In addition, regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with elevated CVD mortality.
Why is there so much sugar in processed food? Because of the erroneous argument that fat was the root of all dietary evil.
When vocal and influential scientists convinced policymakers that we needed to reduce dietary fat (because it “caused” blood cholesterol to increase, which it does not), food manufacturers had to do something to make processed food taste good. So they added sugar. Specifically, high fructose corn syrup.
Nutrition labeling was introduced as part of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.
According to the FDA news release:
Most food manufacturers will be required to use the new label by July 26, 2018. Manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply with the new rules…
The Nutrition Facts label regulations apply to packaged foods except certain meat, poultry and processed egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Cost of the change
The FDA has estimated that the cost of updating the labels would be about $2 billion. That seems … excessive, given that companies don’t keep a two-year supply of labels sitting in a warehouse. It’s basically a mathematical calculation (that’s what computers do really well) and tweaks to existing designs. The only true new calculation required is that added-sugars line.
And $2 billion certain sounds like a lot of money. But how large is this industrial sector?
Food manufacturing accounted for $738.5 billion of all U.S. manufacturing in 2012. Beverages accounted for another $102.7 billion, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration (pdf).
That means new labels might cost as much as 0.25% of industry revenue.
That’s less that the total spend for 2016 Super Bowl ad placement (which does not include the cost of creating the ads).
Examples of added sugar
Although hidden sugars may surprise many, what’s not surprising is that most sugar in our diets comes from the “limited nutritional value” category:
- soft drinks
- energy drinks
- cakes, cookies, sweet rolls, pastries, donuts, pies
- cereal and breakfast bars
- other grains like cinnamon toast or honey-nut waffles
- fruit-flavored drinks and fruit juice
- dairy desserts (e.g., ice cream, sweetened yogurt and chocolate milk)
Foods that we may think of as innocent or healthy (or are served to kids because they are “quick”) may also have a lot of added sugar.
4 grams = ~1 teaspoon = ~ 16 calories
AHA recommendation: 6 teaspoons (24 grams) for women, 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men
A typical 6-ounce serving of vanilla (not plain) yogurt contains about 6 teaspoons of sugar, about the same as a regular size Snickers bar.
- Raisin Bran cereal: one cup has 18 grams of sugar (most people eat far more than one cup).
- One frosted brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tart: 15 grams of sugar.
A Starbucks blueberry muffin has 29 grams of sugar, most of that added. A Starbucks grande (16 ounce) mocha with 2% milk has a whopping 35 grams of sugar, most of that added sugar. (A 16-ounce mocha contains four ounces of coffee, several shots of chocolate syrup, and approximately 10 ounces of milk, which contains 15-16 grams of sugar.)
A plain Hershey bar? That’s 220 calories, 22 grams of sugar.
Estimated breakdown of added sugars (data from Rodale):
- Plain bagel, 4.8 grams added sugar (total 5.05 grams of sugar)
- Fruit-flavored yogurt, 11.4 grams added sugar (total 19 grams of sugar)
- Granola bars, 20.4 grams added sugar (total 21.8 grams of sugar)
- Peanut butter, smooth, 3.1 grams added sugar (total 9.05 grams of sugar)
- Whole wheat slice of bread, 5 grams added sugar (total 5.57 grams of sugar)
What’s in a name?
Most “sugar” that appears on food ingredient labels is some form of processed corn. Some research suggests corn-based sugars (such as high-fructose corn syrup) are more harmful than “white” table sugar (sucrose).
“When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight.”
“These rats aren’t just getting fat; they’re demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides,” said Princeton graduate student Miriam Bocarsly. “In humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes.”
The rats in the Princeton study became obese by drinking high-fructose corn syrup, but not by drinking sucrose. The critical differences in appetite, metabolism and gene expression that underlie this phenomenon are yet to be discovered, but may relate to the fact that excess fructose is being metabolized to produce fat, while glucose is largely being processed for energy or stored as a carbohydrate, called glycogen, in the liver and muscles.
Common names for sugars
- anhydrous dextrose
- brown sugar
- cane juice
- confectioner’s powdered sugar
- corn syrup
- corn syrup solids
- crystal dextrose
- diastatic malt
- evaporated corn sweetener
- fruit concentrate
- fruit nectar
- high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- invert sugar
- liquid fructose
- malt syrup
- maple syrup
- nectars (e.g., peach nectar, pear nectar)
- pancake syrup
- raw sugar
- sugar cane juice
- white granulated sugar