Improved nutrition labels would provide better information on sugar content

Modesto Bee

A year after announcing plans to highlight added sugars with new rules for nutrition labels on packaged food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tweaked its proposal in a way that would give consumers more helpful information to understand what they are eating.

The latest proposal, announced last week, would require food manufacturers to list not just the amount of added sugar in their products but also how that amount relates to a recommended daily level for the average person.

That makes sense. The amounts, in abstract, don’t mean much to most people. But knowing that a single 20-ounce serving of Coke contains more than the entire recommended daily amount of sugar for an adult might persuade some people to cut back their consumption.

The changes are part of a much-needed overhaul of the nutrition label. The new label would put more emphasis on the number of servings in a package and list the calories per serving in larger, bolder type. It would also be more realistic about serving sizes – so that a 20-ounce drink would be considered a single-serving, not 2.5 servings, which might have led some people to underestimate the amount of sugar and total calories they were consuming.

Those who read nutrition labels might be surprised by what they find once the new system is in place. Soda is not the only popular product with high amounts of sugar.

A banana nut energy bar from Clif Bar, for example, has 21 grams of sugar, or about 40 percent of the recommended daily intake. A six-ounce container of Yoplait strawberry yogurt has 27 grams, or more than half the recommended amount for the entire day. And that Cinnabon cinnamon roll whose scent calls out to you at the mall or airport? It has 57 grams, or more sugar than the FDA says you should be eating for an entire day.

The FDA is basing its rule on recent recommendations that adults should get no more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. That would be about 200 calories in a typical 2,000-calorie diet, or about 50 grams of sugar.

The FDA says it is pushing the more explicit labeling rules to combat obesity and diabetes, which research has linked to sugar consumption.

It’s not entirely clear how sugar, especially refined sugar, might lead to disease. But it seems certain that there is a correlation.

A 2013 review of 30 clinical trials and 38 population studies found a significant connection between sugar consumption and weight gain. Studies have also shown that people who drink more than one sugar-sweetened beverage per day are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

Sugar might also be implicated in heart disease. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an article last year that found a significant connection between the consumption of added sugar and death from cardiovascular disease.

The sugar and beverage industries continue to argue that their products do not cause disease, and they point to data showing an increase in obesity rates even during a recent down-tick in per-capita sugar consumption. That’s one reason why more research is needed to firmly establish whether sugar causes illness or is simply a fellow traveler with other issues that lead to disease.

In the meantime, though, the evidence suggests that people who avoid excessive amounts of added sugar are less likely to have chronic disease and more likely to live longer, healthier lives.

The FDA’s proposal for clearer nutrition labels on packaged foods won’t by itself reverse obesity rates. But it will help those who want to help themselves.

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. Contact him at