Photograph by Joe Raedle, Getty Images
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Starting in 2018, food manufacturers will be required to detail how much sugar they add to their products on the nutrition panel, among other changes to food labels.

Photograph by Joe Raedle, Getty Images
The Plate

What You Need to Know About Sugar and Nutrition Labels

The outgoing Obama Administration signals its nutrition priorities by making it easier for consumers to watch their sugar intake.

When the US Food and Drug Administration unveiled its final changes to the iconic Nutrition Facts label last week, the agency made a bold move to provide American shoppers with more nutrition information—more, probably, than any consumers in the world.

The biggest change? A sugar-toothed food industry will have to do something it has railed against: Tell people just how much of the sweet stuff it tucks into products.

Among other changes, the FDA will require that calorie totals appear in large, bold type, that serving sizes be based on what Americans typically eat, and—most provocatively—that each label contain a line indicating how much sugar was added in processing. Especially important is the agency’s requirement that added sugars be listed in grams and represented as a percent Daily Value. In other words, it means the agency is suggesting a limit for sugar intake—about 12 teaspoons a day.

“The added sugars line was very controversial, especially on the beverage side of the industry,” says Erik Lieberman, a Washington D.C.-based attorney who specializes in labeling and food issues. “The bottom line is, this was a priority for the [Obama] administration and that’s why it got done. This was a signature effort for the First Lady. And the food industry isn’t thrilled about it.”

But, at least for now, the industry only has to declare added sugars for the U.S. market. An effort to get an added sugars line in Canada collapsed last year, and new mandatory labels slated to take effect in the European Union at the end of this year will list the total sugar content per 100 grams or milliliters. 

That, nutrition advocates say, makes the Nutrition Facts panel the most progressive mandatory label in the world—and could also make it more vulnerable to attack from the food industry.

When the FDA proposed these changes back in 2014, the food industry kicked into high gear, working to persuade the agency that the added sugars line unfairly singled out one ingredient. Yogurt and juice makers especially said it would be a huge burden to distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and those added in processing. And industry nutritionists stressed the the human body doesn’t make a distinction between added sugar and natural sugar.

“I’m very disappointed,” says Carol T. Culhane, president of Toronto-based International Food Focus, Ltd., which advises the food industry and governments on food regulation. “We never seem to be learning that you can’t blast one ingredient.”

“No matter if the sugar is in milk, juice, in a sugar cube or in a chocolate bar, the body recognizes it as C12 H22 O11. Naturally-occurring sugar should not be granted a halo-effect,” Culhane explains. “The nutrient analysis of a food product cannot differentiate between added sugar and naturally-occurring sugar. The laboratory method of analysis for sugar captures all sugar.”

The FDA, pointing to conclusions from the World Health Organization, Institute of Medicine and American Heart Association, says consumers need to know how much added sugars are in a product because consuming too much sugar makes it impossible to eat a healthy diet—with adequate fiber and nutrients—without going over the recommended limit of 2,000 calories a day.

"The Dietary Guidelines.... concluded that in order to meet the nutrient requirements, you can consume no more than 10 percent added sugars," said Susan Mayne, the head of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a call with reporters last week. "So the FDA took that and we chose 10 percent. Current intake levels are about 13 percent, so this would be a reduction."

The FDA is giving larger food and beverage makers—those with sales above $10 million annually—until July, 2018 to parse their formulas and comply with the rule. Smaller companies will get an additional year.  Industry watchers are keeping a close eye out to see if manufacturers tweak their formulas to avoid looking like sugar pushers. Many sodas, for example, will now have to announce that a single bottle contains well over the maximum recommended sugar load for the day.

But the food industry is unlikely to make too much noise about the change, largely because things could have been even tougher. The industry effectively thwarted earlier calls to put nutrition information on the front of packages—where more consumers are likely to see it—by launching its own program called “Facts Up Front.” 

Industry critics, including Marion Nestle, who’s written extensively on the industry’s efforts to avoid transparency, called the voluntary program a “scheme” and an end-run around stricter regulations. Nestle, among others, has argued that front-of-package labeling could be even more compelling to consumers than the mandatory disclosures in the Nutrition Facts label.

Several countries, including the UK, South Korea and Thailand, have front-of-package nutrition labeling systems that use a traffic-light or colored icons to indicate which foods and ingredients are more healthful. Several countries, including Peru, Mexico, Chile and Ecuador have introduced mandatory front-of-package labeling. But the UK system is under legal challenge, and the food industry would likely attack any similar system in the US.

“Then it’s not just disclosure,” Lieberman says. “It’s the government requiring food companies to make a call about what’s healthier.”

Georgina Gustin is a longtime food policy and farming reporter. Follow her on Twitter.