An update of US nutrition labels has big implications for consumers and food brands.
Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration announced the first major update to the US “Nutrition Facts” labels in over 20 years. For the first time, the labels will include a separate line for information on added sugars.
Consumers will be informed of both the quantity and recommended daily value of added sugars. “Scientific data shows that it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar,” the FDA said in its statement announcing the change.
First Lady Michelle Obama called the updated Nutrition Facts a “landmark achievement.” “Most important of all, this label will tell you how much sugar was added to your food during processing and how much of it comes from ingredients like fruit,” she said.
The move comes amid growing scientific consensus about the link between sugar consumption and a range of health conditions including obesity and diabetes. Recent documentaries such as the 2014’s Fed Up, narrated by news anchor Katie Couric, and 2015’s That Sugar Film have also brought public attention to the issue.
While previously, added sugars have been listed on nutrition labels under dozens of different names, from “evaporated cane juice” to “high-fructose corn syrup,” the new guidelines will make them visible as a single number. Some analysts predict that the increased visibility will lead to a shift away from sugars similar to what happened when trans fats began appearing on the labels in the mid-2000s.
Brands are taking note. “The changes proposed by the FDA to the nutrition fact panel as well as serving size has certainly caused product formulators to look at how their new label will look to consumers,” sweetener expert John Fry told the trade journal FoodNavigator-USA. “Sugar reduction is already a big deal—it is one of the main themes in food processing. The FDA’s proposal merely underlines that sugars content is a matter of consumer concern that won’t go away.”
Brands could shift to using more alternative sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit, Fry said. Even Coca-Cola is (gradually) moving away from conventional added sugars, filing 24 stevia-related patents, according to restaurant trade magazine QSR.
While various local governments are trying to reduce sugar consumption by taxing soda, a more lasting change may come as consumers become more aware of added sugars in many common foods and voluntarily shift their habits. Since the new labels won’t be compulsory until 2018, brands have time to develop advance strategies to meet the needs of the sugar-conscious consumers of the future.
Main image: Michelle Obama at Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington, 2016. Photography by Doug Van Sant