The Battle Of Added vs. Naturally Occurring Sugars On Food Labels Is Coming To Supermarket Shelves

May 23, 2016

Industry groups vow to continue to fight up until implementation becomes mandatory on July 26, 2018.

Originally published on

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday finalized the rules for the new Nutrition Facts label that First Lady Michelle Obama has been pushing and fighting for since practically the day she moved into the White House. In the announcement made along with FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg she said, “So this is a big deal, and it’s going to make a big difference for families all across this country.” While industry groups did their best to fight the changes, especially on the new addition of “added sugars” to the label, they have vowed to continue to fight up until implementation becomes mandatory on July 26, 2018. 

Here’s what you need to know about the new label:

  • Daily values for nutrients including sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D are being updated, as is the list of nutrients that are required or permitted. Vitamin D, Potassium, Calcium and Iron are all required (Vitamin A and C are no longer required, but permitted to be listed), and the actual amounts must be listed in addition to the percent of Daily Value
  • Daily Value will now be defined based on 2,000s calorie per day.
  • Calories from Fat is being removed, as research found that the type of fat is more important than the amount.
  • Serving sizes are being changed to reflect the quantity that people actually eat. In the case of soda the serving size is changing from 8 ounces to 12 ounces. In the case of the very popular 20 ounce soda package, which now could have two servings listed that will be changed to one serving and is based on what people consume typically in one sitting. Another example is changing the serving size of ice cream from ½ cup to 2/3 cup. The current serving size standards were issued in 1993.
  • Products that are larger than a single serving, but could be consumed in either a single or multiple sitting, the package would be mandated to have a dual column that lists calories and nutrients for both the serving and package sizes.
  • Added sugars must be included both in grams and percent of Daily Value

It’s the “added sugars” that has sparked the most controversy and debate for the industry that has used every excuse possible, from the cost of re-labeling to saying there is no difference between naturally occurring sugars in foods and added sugars to the fact that consumers will be confused.

The fact is that the beverage companies, led by Coca-Cola and Pepsi have already seen their sugar-based beverage sales decline while their waters, Aquafina and Dasani, as well as other brands have increased in per capita consumption from 16.2 gallons in 1999 to 34 gallons in 2014; as more consumers have become aware of just how many sugars we consume daily (according to the FDA we currently consume 80 grams of added sugars daily while their recommendation is no more than 50 grams). Per capita consumption of soft drinks in the U.S. has dropped from 45.5 gallons a year to 41.4 gallons per year. 

There are facts to back up why added sugars should be called out, but certainly educating the consumer as to the difference between naturally occurring sugars will be critical; because what is clear is that shoppers do not understand the benefits.

The most compelling is a study conducted by researchers at Tufts University in Boston and published in the journal Circulation last year, that suggested that consumption of sugary drinks leads to an estimated 184,000 adult deaths annually from diabetes, heart disease and cancer. 

There have been calls for “soda taxes” both here in the U.S. and abroad. Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to initiate one in New York City has led to other cities learning from the failure and have put together their own versions which may be effective; Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Oakland California are just a few of the cities. This past January, Baltimore councilman Nick Mosby introduced legislation that would require businesses that sell or advertise sugar-sweetened sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, juices, coffees and teas to post signs warning consumers that these beverages contribute to tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen said that “The science is clear: The biggest contributor to childhood obesity is sugary drinks, childhood obesity will lead to adult diseases that kill, and we must do everything we can to protect the health of our children.”

A “soda tax” been highly debated and challenged by the soda industry, which claims everything from being unlawful, unfair to consumers and would raise prices. But news from across our border adds new fuel to the possibility. 

The American Heart Association says that adding such a tax should improve rates of obesity, and lower diabetes and heart disease based on an analysis of the impact of adding a ten-percent tax to sugary drinks in Mexico on January 1, 2014. One year later to the day, sales of the drinks were down 12 percent and untaxed beverages, like bottled water were up 4 percent. In analysis conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from more than 6,200 Mexican households in 53 large cities showed that, in 2014, the average person bought 1.1 gallons of sugary drinks than they would have before the tax. The reduction in sales of sugary drinks was highest among poor households, falling 17 percent by the end of 2014, according to the study.

However, proper labeling and serving sizes, as the FDA is mandating may be a more realistic solution after all.

A new research report in the journal Pediatrics said that in a survey of 2,400 parents from all demographics, just 40 percent chose a soda for their kids that contained a warning label on the package. The researchers asked the parents to choose a beverage for their child from an imaginary vending machine. The participants were randomly assigned one of six possible beverages: one with no label, one with a calorie label and four with different variations on a text-warning label. The criteria for the fake branded beverages were drawn from proposed California legislation: any sweetened nonalcoholic drink with added sweeteners with 75 or more calories per 12 fluid ounces. The research also found that just having the calorie count on the label had less than half of those parents selecting that soda.

It’s not just about added sugars or soft drinks. 

A new study in the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal of Nutrition, and the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the average size of many of our foods, be they from fast-food chains, sit-down restaurants, or even the grocery store, has grown by as much as 138% since the 1970s. Portion sizes vary by food source, but the largest increase in portion size they found was for soda, followed by fruit drinks. The researchers concluded, “because energy content increases with portion size, educational and other public health efforts to address obesity should focus on the need for people to consume smaller portions.”

Less is more when it comes to our portion sizes and added sugars lends further credibility to the move by the FDA to properly communicate realistic portion sizes on food and beverage packaging. This is one war that the food industry should sit out, for the good of America’s health.