July 24, 2015 -- Food manufacturers will be required to tell consumers how much sugar is added to their products and show how the amount compares to recommended daily limits under new changes to nutrition labels proposed by the FDA on Friday.
But it can be tough to tell how much of the sweet stuff is in processed foods. Nutrition labels only tally total sugars, a measure that includes both those naturally present in foods like fruits and vegetables and those that are added during manufacturing.
Food labels also list ingredients by weight, so the higher up on the ingredient list, the more sugar is in a food. But manufacturers use many different names for added sugars, such as dextrose and fructose. And they sometimes use several different kinds of sugar in the same product so they can list each one lower down on the ingredient list -- further obscuring the total amount.
“It’s a great public health victory,” says Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “This is what consumers need to know so they can make healthy choices. They need to know that 20-ounce [soda] has about 130% the daily value of added sugar.”
In March 2014, the FDA proposed adding the amount of added sugars, in grams, to food labels. The agency said Friday it is revising that proposal to also tell consumers how much added sugar a food contains relative to a total daily limit -- a measure called the percent daily value.
Specifically, regulators are proposing that people limit the added sugar they eat to no more than 10% of their total daily calories. For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. A teaspoon of sugar is about 16 calories.
Studies show that the average American now takes in almost twice that much sugar -- 22 teaspoons -- each day, which amounts to an extra 350 calories.
“The FDA has a responsibility to give consumers the information they need to make informed dietary decisions for themselves and their families,” says Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a news release.
The advice for the past decade has been to cut back on added sugars in the diet, she says, "and the proposed percent daily value for added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label is intended to help consumers follow that advice.”
The change comes after the FDA reviewed the recent recommendations of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The committee’s report found that it was hard for a person to get all the recommended nutrients in their diet if they also ate more than 10% of their total daily calories as sugar.
The proposed changes will be open for public comment for 75 days.
The food industry has lobbied hard to keep added sugars off food labels. Public policy experts say they expect significant pushback on the changes.
“I expect the food industry -- led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association -- to go berserk over this one,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, in an email to WebMD. Nestle is a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. She predicts food makers will go to Congress to try to block the changes.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WebMD.