Warning - That's Too Much Sugar!


The American Medical Association (AMA) recently released a statement calling on the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to develop front-of-pack warning labels for foods that are high in added sugars based on Daily Values (DVs). Their reasoning was based on the simple premise that if and when consumers have readily available information on the amount of sugar they are consuming, they may choose foods with less sugar. Fair enough. Of course, right on cue, the Sugar Association fired promptly back and stated that this type of labeling would do nothing but confuse consumers.


Historically Speaking

To untangle this battle, let’s first pull a page from the history books in order to appreciate the many decades of debate and obsession we’ve had with sugar. Back when the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released in 1980, consumers were advised to ‘avoid too much sugar.’ This little 18-page booklet of guidance stated the following:

Contrary to widespread opinion, too much sugar in your diet does not seem to cause diabetes. The most common type of diabetes is seen in obese adults, and avoiding sugar, without correcting the overweight, will not solve the problem. There is also no convincing evidence that sugar causes heart attacks or blood vessel diseases.

Jump ahead to modern day and we now have a 400+ page scientific report, and this statement in the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars, saturated fats and sodium.

Note the movement from the term ‘avoid’ to ‘limit’. Limit sounds more doable, even if the exact parameters are fuzzy. Also, note the shift from sugar to added sugars. The latter are the various sweeteners including but not limited to sugar and other caloric sweetening ingredients like brown rice syrup, corn syrup solids, honey, agave and many others that are added to foods and beverages by manufacturers.

Despite decades of guidance being continually refined (pun fully intended) over time, the picture of added sugar consumption by Americans is not pretty. Data indicate the leading sources of added sugars in the U.S. diet are sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts like cakes and cookies, candy and dairy desserts like ice cream.


Two Perspectives on the Warning Label Question

At first blush, the question is: Would a warning label on the front of the package help consumers?

The short answer is probably not much in my opinion. If a consumer wants to know about added sugars in a packaged food or beverage, they will soon find this information on the nutrition facts panel on the back of pack. A corresponding DV of 50 grams for adults and children 4 years or older will also be reflected as a percent DV on the new label. Taken together, consumers will have better access to relevant information on added sugars without a warning label.

In case you’re wondering about that 50-gram limit...one medium pumpkin swirl cappuccino with whole milk will keep you juuussst under your sugar limit for the day. Pair it with a doughnut, and it’s all over in just that one eating occasion.

Coffee and doughnuts aside, if the question is: Would a warning label prompt manufacturers to re-formulate with lesser amounts of added sugars in the first place? Now, my answer shifts from a ‘probably not much’ to a yes.

The threat of a warning label would prompt manufacturers to take action. Savvy product marketers want to tout the positive attributes of their product, not display intentionally obtrusive warning symbols about high sugar content on the front of pack. As a result, product developers will turn to non-nutritive sweeteners to make up the difference of the sugar removed. Options range from stevia and monk fruit to sugar alcohols which continue to retain a relative halo of naturality. Though, developers will also look to increasingly less popular artificial options like sucralose or aspartame. The key is they’re all calorie-free and are not sugar.


Consumer Expectations

Whether it’s plain old white sugar, non-nutritives with an air of naturalness or a combination of the two, the looming challenge is really about consumer taste perceptions. Consumers have come to expect and enjoy a super-sweet sweetness that cuts across product categories. This is no longer about sugary cookies and cupcakes, but rather about the widespread expectation that a vegetable pasta sauce, yogurt or salad dressing should be decidedly and noticeably sweet.

When this taste bud reality is combined with the finding that a full third of Americans believe that sugars are the source of calories most likely to cause weight gain, it’s safe to say the sugar wars will continue with or without a warning label.