The Nutrition Facts label, which appears on the back of thousands of packaged foods, is getting a makeover to reflect new nutrition research. Medical experts say that its biggest change a new call-out that lists the amount of added sugar in foods will be a huge win for public health.
Pat Crawford, director of research at University of California’s Nutrition Policy Institute said:
“It’s a victory for consumers. The impact is going to be incredible,”. “It’s something in the nutrition field we’ve waited for years and years: to educate the public on how absolutely critical added sugar is and about the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dental caries.”
Unveiled Friday by first lady Michelle Obama, the Food and Drug Administration’s new label also has a bigger and bolder display of calorie count and includes adjustments on serving sizes. But the most significant change is the inclusion of added sugar, and its recommended percentage in an average diet. Added sugar is any kind of sweetener that is not naturally found in foods like fruit and dairy products; it is found in nearly 75 percent of packaged foods.
Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at UCSF and a leading researcher on the dangers of sugar in the diet said:
“Now the public will have information they need in order to make rational choices about what they want to feed their children and themselves,”.
The larger impact will likely be if the new labels cause manufacturers to make changes to products. Once the new information is available to consumers, food manufacturers may reformulate products with less added sugar, as happened after trans fat information was added to food labels in 2006 — the last significant change to the label.
“Once (trans fat) was on the label, (manufacturers) lowered the trans fat. They just wanted their products to be competitive,” Crawford said.
The Obama administration had already targeted added sugar when it released the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in January, recommending new limits on sweeteners to 10 percent of daily calories, which adds up to about 4 tablespoons in a 2,000-calorie diet.
“Scientific data shows that it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar,” reads the FDA’s explanation of changes to the new label.
Naturally occurring sugars are not associated with the health risks that come with sugars added during processing, said Crawford.
Yet tracking added sugars is almost impossible with the current Nutrition Facts label, which lists only total sugars. A shopper buying a tub of vanilla yogurt, for example, wouldn’t know how much of the sugar in a serving comes from natural lactose in the milk and how much from added sugar. The new label, on the other hand, will list the added sugar separately, and it will also call out what percentage of the USDA’s recommended daily value those added sugars represent.
“People are going to say, ‘Hey, I’m getting 90 percent of my daily value (of added sugar) from this Coke — maybe I should rethink this,’” said Lustig.
Crawford noticed the difficulty of trying to determine added sugars in foods when a friend, whom she calls “a highly educated lawyer,” asked her to help him figure out how much added sugar he got in his daily bowl of Raisin Bran, which has both natural sugar from the raisins and added sweeteners for flavor.
“I poured out a cup of cereal. I counted the raisins,” said Crawford, who then subtracted the amount of natural sugar in the raisins from the total sugar listed on the cereal box.
The new changes to the label also include changes on serving sizes for certain foods that will more accurately reflect how much a person eats or drinks, such as the possibility that someone may down an entire 20-ounce Coke as readily as a 12-ounce Coke. As the label works now, a 20-ounce Coke may have calorie counts that reflect several servings, even though a single person may drink the whole thing.
Lustig cautions that only 15 percent of Americans even look at the Nutrition Facts label, and even warning labels for alcohol and tobacco do not necessarily help people change risky habits.
“This change is what I call necessary but not sufficient,” he said. “Whether or not it will be enough is not at all clear.”
Perhaps in anticipation of cost increases related to those changes, an industry group, the Sugar Association, expressed its opposition to the new label in a statement: “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America.”
The FDA said that manufacturers will need to use the new label by July 26, 2018. However, companies with less than $10 million in annual food sales have another year to change labels.
The administration’s policy changes around sugar guidelines could be among the the most lasting achievements in Michelle Obama’s work to improve nutrition and fight obesity. But they didn’t come without a fight from the food industry, said Lustig.
“They did focus groups trying to show that the label would be confusing. They tried to argue that added sugar was like other sugar,” said Lustig. But “the science was so clear, based on work that I have done and others have done, that basically the FDA could not ignore it.”