Add a Little Sugar to Nutrition Labels

Sugar. Water.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Americans have a sweet tooth, and the obesity and diabetes rates to prove it. The best way to help people eat less sugar is to let them know how much of it is in their foods. Yet a sensible plan to inform consumers about the amount of sugar added to packaged products is under fire from the food industry and politicians. The Food and Drug Administration should stand strong and stick with the plan when it issues its final rules later this year.

The FDA has proposed requiring a new line in the nutrition label for "added sugars" -- just below the line for total sugar. The label may also specify how much of the recommended daily allowance of added sugars the product contains, out of a maximum of roughly 12 teaspoons.

Added sugar deserves a line of its own because it's empty calories. Many nutritious products contain natural sugars: A cup of cherries or grapes can have more than 15 grams, and a cup of 1 percent milk has 13 grams. Yet this sugar comes along with essential nutrients; that glass of milk contains 16 percent of the protein a healthy adult needs each day, and 30 percent of the calcium.

In contrast, refined cane sugar, corn syrup and the like that are added to foods and drinks during processing (also called "free sugars") offer no additional nutrients. Americans now get about 13 percent of their daily calories from them, largely through soda and other beverages, breakfast cereals and frozen desserts.

A can of Coca-Cola has more than 9 teaspoons (39 grams) of added sugars. But even products not considered sweet contain them; a tablespoon of ketchup has about 4 grams. A study of 80,000 products on supermarket shelves found that 58 percent contained added sugar. And while total U.S. consumption has declined in recent years, only 30 percent of Americans eat less added sugar than the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend.

The food industry has three objections to the labeling requirement. The first is that Americans won't know what to make of the information about added sugar. That may be true, but neither were many Americans familiar with trans fats when they were added to nutrition labels in 2006. And since that rule was passed, thanks also to greater media attention and information campaigns, people cut their consumption of trans fats by more than 75 percent. (Last year the FDA decided to ban them altogether.) In any case, if most consumers won't pay attention, what do food manufacturers stand to lose from the disclosure? 

Food makers also argue that the science suggesting that added sugars should be limited is not settled. And it's true there's not a lot of good data on added sugar's connection to health problems. But there's significant evidence that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked with obesity. And after reviewing the evidence on added sugars, the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found there was a strong correlation with diabetes and obesity, and a moderate correlation with hypertension, stroke and dental problems. 

Finally, food makers object that almost all packaged-food labels already list added sugars. That's technically true, but the industry engages in all sorts of tricks to hide them, for example by including several different types in a single product so that they appear as low as possible in the ingredients list, which is organized by weight in descending order.

The new line for added sugars is part of the FDA's general shakeup of the nutrition label to reflect the research that's been done since the early 1990s, when labels were first required. The agency has other changes in mind, too, including listing potassium, vitamin D and other vital nutrients that Americans eat too little of. In a society that spends more than $300 billion a year on medical costs and reduced productivity from diabetes alone, these are worthwhile requirements. Americans can more easily eat better if they know what's in their food.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.