Exploring the consequences of the FDA’s decision to include “added sugars” on the new food label.

If you have been keeping a drift of nutrition news from around the world you may have heard by now that  the United States Food and Drug Administration ( FDA) has introduced new food labeling requirements that will be enforced starting July 2018.

The changes are highlighted in the image provided at the start of the documented and many of them, such as including vitamin D and more realistic serving sizes, will be of great use to the average consumer. However, it is the inclusion of “added” sugars” that has everyone raving.  

For those that may not know, added sugars are those added to foods that do not exist naturally in that food. Milk , for example contains natural sugars and no added sugars, but chocolate milk contains both added and natural sugars that would have to be listed in the “added sugars” category.  

Why include added sugars?

An excess consumption of sugars, particularly added sugars, has been blamed or implicated in many of the health issues faced in modern society. 

From the FDA’s perspective, they justify the mandatory inclusion of added sugars on the food label based on evidence that suggests that it is very difficult for someone to get enough fiber, vitamins and minerals within a healthy calorie range if they consume too many added sugars ( > 10% of total calorie intake).   

I do believe that this is a reasonable justification for including added sugars on the food label because, true enough, if an individual is consuming a great deal of calories from added sugars they are most likely to be consuming foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients  (although this is not always the case, and I will touch on that shortly).

% Daily Value is the critical component 

The inclusion of added sugars on the food label, while justifiable, would be of minimal usefulness if it was not accompanied by a %daily value.

Fortunately, the FDA has made the bold move to include this value for added sugars, which is set at 10% of total calorie intake. 

This means that , if the new rules went into effect today, a 355 ml can of soft drink would now have to display on its label that it contains 80% of a persons daily value of added sugars. 

That’s a big deal.

80% is a big number that I believe will resonate negatively with the average consumer.

Here is the math:

The Added Sugars %DV  Case Example – Soft Drink

355 ml “Soft Drink” contains about 40 grams of added sugars.

40 grams of sugars  x 4 calories per gram of sugar = 160 calories. 

(10% is the recommended daily value of added sugars) 

10% of a 2000 calorie diet is 200 calories  ( 2000 calories is the standard used for %DV)

160 calories /200 calories = 80% of daily added sugars coming from a 355 ml can of pop.

355 ml pops with 40 grams of sugar contains 80% of a persons daily added sugars.

The Consequences: Part I – Intended Consequences

The combination of added sugars and the new %DV for added sugars will make sugar sweetened beverages such as pop, sports drinks and sugar-added fruit drinks look much less appealing to the average consumer. 

It may also lessen the appeal of various other high calorie sugar-added products such as jams, chocolates, sweets, cakes, cookies, ice cream and certain sauces and dressings. 

These foods do not offer the average person anything more than “empty” calories and I do believe it is the FDA’s intention to use the new labeling regime to help divert consumers away from these foods. 

I think the FDA has taken a bold stance that will hit the soft drink industry particularly hard but there may also be some unintended consequences with this approach. 

The Consequences: Part II – Unintended Consequences

The inclusion of the added sugars and %daily value for added sugars will draw a great deal of attention to the sugar content of foods but the reality is that sugar content is only a small component of the overall picture.

There are many other components  of packaged foods worthy of at least equal consideration such as total calories, saturated fat, sodium, fibre, nutrient and even the ingredients.  

With this in mind, here are some of the potential issues I could see arising with the new labeling regulations:

1. Certain “healthy” foods may look worse: Sweetened foods that may otherwise have important health benefits to certain demographics, such as chocolate milk, sweetened yogurts, sweetened non-dairy milks and a variety of whole grain oat/wheat based products such as bars and cereals may suffer as a consequence of the “added sugars” label. These foods are important sources of nutrients for many in the population and their value may be confused/compromised with the new label regulations. 

2. Certain “unhealthy” foods may look better:  The new attention drawn to added sugars may benefit consumer perception of certain high fat/calorie/sodium  snack foods such as chips, which have little or no added sugar content. Depending on changes in consumer perceptions and purchasing habits, these types of foods may become more prominent in the market.

3. The rise of low/no calorie sweeteners?:  I see this as the great inevitability of the new labeling regulations. I can’t imagine “big sugar” will be thrilled with the idea that a single serving of their product will represent close to 100% of a persons added sugar intake, that just cannot be good for business. 

The solution that I see is further “innovation” in the low/no calorie sweetener market which could potentially have a drastic impact on population consumption patterns of these sweeteners which could lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences on population health.

Concluding Remarks 

The FDA’s decision to include both added sugars and an added sugar % DV will probably reduce the consumer appeal of certain products and put great pressure on soft drink and other sugar-reliant food organizations to make changes to their formulations.

It is important for consumers to remain mindful that , even though this may prove to be a positive step, added sugar content is only a single component of what determines the healthfulness of a packaged food.

Many otherwise healthy foods may have added sugars and many nutrient devoid foods may be low in added sugars.

It is also worth noting that the “fall of sugars” may also lead to the rise “low/no-calorie sweeteners” and their increased presence on our food system and consumption patterns may lead to health effects that were not intended. 

At the end of the day,  we must remember that the majority of the healthiest foods available for human consumption are sold without food labels of any kind ( veggies!!).


Andy De Santis RD MPH