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“Added Sugar” Labels Make Candyman Nervous

The FDA's proposal to include “added sugar” to the Nutrition Facts label has sparked cheers from health advocates and fierce opposition from food companies.

  • A can of soda displayed next to a pile of sugar to demonstrate how much is in each can.

    Image 1 of 2

    The FDA is considering an additional "added sugar" line on its nutrition facts label to help consumers control sugar in their diet.

  • a graph showing the sugar consumption relative to health recommendations

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    Sugar consumption in the U.S. far exceeds recommendations from the American Heart Association and guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Just The Facts

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is weighing big changes to the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label for the first time since 1993. Perhaps the biggest, and certainly the most controversial change on the table is a little extra item under the sugar line to declare how much of the product’s sweet stuff was added to the recipe.

The FDA says Americans eat an average of 16 percent of their daily calories from added sugar. The American Heart Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines recommend reducing sugar consumption, and the World Health Organization echoed those concerns in a report, amid a growing “worldwide pandemic of obesity and cardiovascular disease.”

The AHA says Americans consumed an average of more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day from 2001 to 2004, mostly from sugary drinks. But sugar is also added to a surprising array of food products, from mustard and salad dressing to potato chips, yogurt and bread.

The FDA is accepting comments on new label proposals until August 1st. A decision would likely be months away.

Sugar Defense

A few powerful food industry groups are fighting to stop the label change.

They’re basically doing what Big Tobacco has done, what some of those who fight climate science have done: They’re trying to obscure the science and undermine policy by attacking the science.

The American Bakers Association, Corn Refiner Association, International Dairy Foods Association and National Confectioners Association wrote a letter to the FDA in June proposing that they fund “quantitative consumer perception research” on whether the label would have an effect. Label-change supporters have called the move a ploy to delay the process.

The Sugar Association told the FDA in a public meeting that there is “no preponderance of evidence to justify an ‘added sugar’ label.”

Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the sugar groups are taking a page from industry campaigns of the past.

“They’re basically doing what Big Tobacco has done, what some of those who fight climate science have done: They’re trying to obscure the science and undermine policy by attacking the science.”

Would It Work?

A key argument on the opposition side is that the extra line on the label wouldn’t change consumer behavior.

But advocates point to the case of trans fats, where consumption declined after the FDA added a line to the Nutrition Facts label in 2003. The Centers for Disease Control reported a 58 percent decline in trans-fatty acids in U.S. adults after the move.

Consumer behavior changed as a result, Goldman said, but the industry’s use of trans fats also declined as a result of the new label, because they were expecting lost sales for products that contained such ingredients.

“If companies have to disclose how much sugar they’re adding to products, as opposed to how much is just naturally in there, we could see a big change in how they choose to make their products.”

Read More:

  • The Crucial FDA Nutrition Label Battle You Probably Don’t Know About, But Should (Washington Post)
  • Report: The Sugar Lobby Threatens Organizations, Buries Science On Health Effects (Newsweek)
  • Five Things Sugar Interests Get Wrong about FDA Added Sugars Labeling (UCS)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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