Why You Should Care About Adding Sugar to Your Food
When new food labels come out in a year or two, Pepsi’s 20 ounces should state that they contain 130% of the daily value of added sugar. Yoghurts need to require added sugar, so we can’t fool ourselves that it all comes from fruits. Food companies fought the change but failed.
Yes, the sugar industry, you’re right: added sugar is made up of the same substance as natural sugar. But the new FDA labels are about health, not getting the right answer on a chemistry test. It is really helpful to know which foods contain a lot of added sugar.
Sugar is just empty calories, but that’s the problem.
“Sugar is sugar, no matter where it comes from, and the body treats it the same way, whether you add a spoonful of it to your coffee or drink a glass of juice,” wrote the American Drinks Association last year , when there was still little. chance the FDA might change its mind. It’s true: Sugar is sugar, be it sugar cane, corn syrup, or home-grown strawberries.
Other industry groups have rallied around this nagging to fight the “added sugar” label – the Sugar Association and the American Bakers’ Association, to name just a few. They also complained that consumers might have trouble understanding labels, that the difference would be impossible to make, that added sugar was not labeled in Europe, and a million other things that didn’t really matter. The FDA responded by issuing an epic copy of a document that addresses these issues, point by point.
The lack of a direct link between sugar (compared to other calories) and obesity:
We do not establish or rely on a direct link between obesity and added sugar intake for the general population. There is ample evidence that the US population is consuming excess calories from added sugars in excess of the discretionary calories allowed within the RDA.
In other words, they are not saying sugar is evil, but simply saying that it is empty calories. They go on to say that if you’re trying to eat 2,000 calories, it’s next to impossible to get enough healthy, nutrient-rich foods when you’re spending more than 200 of those calories on pure sugar.
In response to the industry’s favorite statement, “sugar can be part of a healthy diet,” the FDA concludes:
So by requiring added sugars to be listed on the Nutritional Facts label, we are giving consumers the tool they need to incorporate added sugars into a healthy diet.
Thus, added sugar is not the only reason we gain weight or get sick. But if we can avoid adding sugar, we can eat healthier foods overall.
Added Sugar Labels Show Us What Food Companies Are Doing
It’s no secret that Coca-Cola contains sugar: everything for the taste. But in many foods, we may not realize how much sugar is added just to make them sweet and tasty. Even if we turn over the packaging to see the total amount of sugar, it is difficult to know if there is “too much” sugar.
Nutritional guidelines published earlier this year (by the USDA and non-FDA HHS) finally set a limit on added sugar . So now we know how much is too much: if strawberry yogurt contains 39 percent of our daily added sugar , well, that’s a lot.
Since these new labels won’t be on the shelves for a while, here’s how you can get an idea of these added amounts of sugar. USDA SuperTracker maintains a food database and their information includes calories from added sugar. Just divide them by 200 calories – or, to simplify, halve the number of calories, and that will give you a percentage. So 78 calories from added sugar equals 39 percent of your daily value. Here are some examples:
- A packet of instant oatmeal with cinnamon and spices : 21 percent
- One cup bran cereal : 44 percent
- A bottle of Gatorade : 61 percent
- Average fast food shake : 72 percent
- Large blueberry muffin : 75 percent
Sweet foods are scattered throughout the supermarket (yes, even Whole Foods). According to a recent study published in the Lancet , about 60 percent of packaged foods contain some amount of added sugar – maybe a little, maybe a lot. You can spot them on the ingredient list, but not all forms of sugar are obvious. Agave sweetener and brown rice syrup are lesser known sugar sources . This is why new labels are so important.
The battle for added sugar (and your health) isn’t over yet
Of course, now that we know what the deal is, manufacturers are likely to start changing their products. One of the industry arguments against the proposed sugar labeling was that it would be very costly to re-formulate products once we understand how much sugar we are actually consuming. They may mean that they will make foods less sweet, but they are probably looking for more hidden sources of sweetness as well.
The FDA has decided to count 100% juice as containing only natural sugar, so a bottle of juice – concentrate or not – will be zero percent of your daily value for added sugar. (The World Health Organization disagrees when defining “free sugar” as juice). However, fruit juice concentrates are now considered sweeteners if they are not diluted to their original concentration. This would seem to remove the most obvious loophole, but don’t underestimate human creativity.
For example, just this month, General Mills received a patent for a yogurt-based food supplement that the company notes “can be used as … a sweetener.” The FDA has decided to exclude dairy additives from the definition of added sugars.
Since natural sugar and added sugar are chemically the same, an additional problem arises: It is not easy to check whether a company is following the rules when analyzing a food product. The FDA says companies will have to keep track of how much added sugars they use. There are laboratory methods , which can distinguish corn, cane and beet sugar (the main sources of added sugar), but they are not widely used. Will food companies be able to cheat? We’ll have to wait and see.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.