Transparency Trumps Sugar: the New Nutrition Label and the Fight Against Obesity

Transparency Trumps Sugar: the New Nutrition Label and the Fight Against Obesity
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Could it be we’re entering a sugar awareness Zeitgeist? That is, are we awakening to the abundance of sugar in the American diet and the toll it can take on health?

With today’s announcement by the FDA and First Lady Michelle Obama that ‘added sugars’ will now be listed on the nutrition facts label – the black-and-white grid found on nearly every packaged food and beverage sold in the U.S. – I’m hopeful.

The stakes are high: sugar consumption is helping drive growing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. It is also linked to cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and cavities.

Americans have not been able to assess the added sugars that are in many of their foods. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) included a critical building block for the new nutrition facts label when, for the first time, they recommended that no more than 10 percent of a person’s daily calories come from sugar. This new daily value for sugar will also be listed on the nutrition facts label, giving consumers guideposts for where their sugar consumption should be.

The 10 percent upper limit on sugar is critical information. It’s also sobering: a person can hit the 10% limit by drinking a 12 oz. can of soda, which contains nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar. Harvard’s Nutrition Source has a list of drinks by brand and amount of added sugars – in teaspoons and grams – per 12 oz. serving. They also categorize the drinks by red (“drink sparingly and infrequently”), yellow (“a better choice but don’t overdo it”) and green (“best choice”). From sodas to smoothies, flavored milks and sports drinks, the sugar content is eye-popping.

A recent study showed that soft drinks and fruit juices are the top sources of added sugars in the U.S. diet. Cakes, cookies and pies follow. The study also found that nearly all – about 90 percent – of the added sugars Americans consume come from ‘ultra-processed foods,’ which includes sugar drinks, but also pizza, cereals, breads and other foods made with multiple additives along with salt, sugar and oils. The same study also suggested that Americans are getting more than half their daily calories from such ‘ultra-processed foods.

Momentum for the sugar awareness Zeitgeist can also be seen in city legislatures, which we’ve been watching intently at the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness. In 2014, voters in Berkeley, CA approved a sugar drink tax – the first city in the country to successfully do so. Oakland, CA put a similar tax on the ballot for November. Other municipalities are trying to do the same. Precedent suggests such taxes yield not only revenue to fund health, education and other needs, but potential positive outcomes for public health. Mexico began taxing sugar drinks in 2014 and sales dropped by 12 percent while water sales increased by four percent. Skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates in Mexico drove the decision to tax sugar drinks.

Information is power. Highlighting ‘added sugars’ – not just total sugar content – on the nutrition facts label will tell a mom or dad making choices at the grocery store exactly how much extra sweetener has been put into a food or drink by the manufacturer. I hope that this new information on the label will prompt parents and other consumers to begin purchasing healthier products with less sugar, which in turn will initiate reformulation of products to contain less sugar. This label change represents an example of sound public health policy with the potential to move Americans toward better health.

There is a reason policymakers and consumers are paying heed; sugar is really not so sweet after all.

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