The Sugar That You're Really Eating (and Drinking)

Changes to food labels open eyes about exactly what you're putting in your mouth

Sugar, Spoon
Topic Images Inc. / Getty Images

May 20, 2016 is a day that most people in the food industry won’t forget. It’s the day that the FDA formally announced that it is mandating companies to, among other significant things, include the amount of added sugars in a product on food and beverage labels.

But isn’t sugar already on food and drink labels?

Yes. But this more specific breakdown can go a long way in helping you determine if what you’ve selected is as healthy as you imagine it to be.

Contrary to popular belief, all sugars are not created equal when it comes to your health risk.

To get more insight on what this change and more transparency in food labeling means to you, we spoke to Lindsay Moyer, MS, RDN, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC.

VERYWELL: KIND, known for its snack bars and cereals, kicked this effort off in August 2016, becoming the first manufacturer of its kind to share added sugar information on more than 60 of its products. Why is this so important to consumers?

Lindsay Moyer, MS, RDN: Eventually, all companies will need to adhere to these guidelines, but I was very happy to see KIND make this move in advance of the deadline because it means consumers will have that much more information to start making better choices right now. Yes, there are useful details on labels today, but what’s provided doesn’t exactly paint the full picture of how a food or drink affects your health.

Plus, it can be hard work to make sense of it all as is. I look at food labels all day long, and even I find them hard to discern sometimes.

VW: Why do we need to pay so much attention to added sugars? Isn’t sugar sugar?

Sugar content is listed on all food and beverage nutrition facts labels today. But that doesn’t tell you what contributes to that number.

Naturally occurring sugars (like those in milk and fruit) are part of a healthy diet and do not raise your risk of obesity, heart disease, or diabetes in the way that added sugars (high fructose corn syrup, table sugars, etc.) do, yet both make up a product’s sugar grams. Knowing the breakdown of these can give you a better sense of just how “good for you” something truly is.

In addition, in contrast to naturally occurring sugars, added sugars are “empty calories” in that they don’t provide any additional value in the way of vitamins and nutrients. A high amount of added sugars hints that the food or drink isn’t providing you with much health benefit.

VW: Do you think many people might be surprised by what they find when referencing added sugars on a label?

LM:  Yes, absolutely—myself included. For example, a yogurt label might say “naturally” or “lightly” sweetened. You may think that that sweetness comes from the strawberries it contains, when the majority of it is actually coming from an added sugar.

Even people who scan ingredient lists may be shocked. You may know to look for, say, high fructose corn syrup, but you may not know some of the other names that added sugars can go by, such as dextrose. Products that seem or are billed as healthy may get a second look after you are able to make sense of exactly what types of sugar they contain. You might expect that most sugar in a candy bar is added, but may not realize how much in a granola bar is, for instance.

VW:  What should people be looking for in terms of added sugars?

LM: The FDA has set a recommended daily value of 50 grams, or about 12 teaspoons. It’s important to remember, though, that that is a recommended maximum, not a goal. When added sugars are included on food labels, they will include both grams and a percent of its daily value (%DV). Look at how much of that percent daily value a food is taking up and think about it in the context of your complete diet. Again, less is always more. Compare foods in similar categories and choose the one with the least added sugar. Don’t aim to hit 50 grams of added sugars—just shoot for not exceeding it.

VW: Do you think this is just the beginning of food labels becoming more transparent? What else would you like to see added to nutrition facts?

LM: I hope so. This change was driven not just by science and reputable organizations supporting the health risks associated with added sugars, but consumer demand. More and more people want to know what they are eating and how it factors into their health. Personally, I’d love to see caffeine content and percentages of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables listed on labels, as well as a clear notation of whether or not something is artificially colored or sweetened. A product may say it “contains real fruit,” but the only ingredient it contains to support that is apple powder.

VW: What can consumers do to encourage this change?

LM: It doesn’t hurt to let companies know you are looking for such information. Even if the information you’re looking for isn’t on a label (yet), you may be able to secure it just by placing a phone call or sending an email. But I encourage people to remember that some of the healthiest foods may not (and likely don’t) come in a package.

A Word From Dr. David L. Katz
Verywell Senior Medical Advisor and True Health Initiative Founder

I commend the FDA for addressing the issue of added sugar, and KIND for getting out in front of the agency’s timeline. There are several advantages to calling out added sugar on food labels. 

For one thing, attention to added sugar helps consumers avoid the excess to which so many of us are subject, while goading manufacturers to cut back. KIND is not just disclosing the sugar added to their bars, they are also working to reduce it to the minimal levels needed to keep the customer satisfied. This can become a very virtuous cycle: more awareness leads to less sugar; less sugar leads to more sensitive palates, which prefer less sugar; and more sensitivity empowers manufacturers to add even less when they reformulate.

For another, in many food categories, there are choices both with, and without, added sugars. Both pasta sauces and salad dressings are good examples, as are crackers, breads, and even chips.  Highlighting added sugars will likely encourage consumers to move toward the products without, which will in turn encourage manufacturers to offer more such products. Ultimately, the food supply itself should improve.

Finally, added sugar is often an indicator of the overall level of processing of a food. Less added sugar, or none, often implies many other related virtues: a shorter ingredient list, less added sodium, absence of food chemicals, and so on. Choosing items with no or low levels of added sugar should help lead us to products that are more wholesome and nutritious overall.

For now, my public thanks to both FDA and KIND for leadership in this important area of nutrition and public health.

Disclosure: Dr. Katz is a former nutrition advisor for KIND.

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