America is about to skewer its sugar-industrial complex—one nutritional label at a time

It’s hard ignore a label with 130% of the sugar you need.
It’s hard ignore a label with 130% of the sugar you need.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Americans are about to find out exactly how much sugar they’ve actually been eating—like it or not. The US government today (May 20) unveiled a new policy requiring food companies be more transparent with consumers about what’s in their products.

The change is part of a longtime effort, spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama, to help consumers better understand what they are eating and some of the health consequences associated with those products. Shoppers in American supermarkets will notice the change on the Nutrition Facts panels of the products they buy. The number of calories in a food item will be more prominent and serving sizes updated. The most high-profile change, however, will be over added sugars, the sugars and syrups added to foods by companies when they are processed (i.e. not natural cane sugar).

Food companies have two years to phase-in a new policy requiring that they disclose the added sugars used in products and to tell consumers what percent Daily Value of sugars are in those products. Currently the Nutrition Facts panel lists the percent daily value for items such as total fat and sodium, but not sugar, which the government recommends people limit to 50 grams a day.

Big soft drink companies like Coca-Cola won’t take lightly to the change. A 20-ounce regular Coke contains 65 grams of sugar, so the company will now have to list on the bottle that it contains 130% of the recommended daily value.

“This long-awaited change represents a real victory for consumers and their health,” said Jim Krieger, director of the non-profit group Healthy Food America, in a statement. “The science is clear that added sugars, which today appear in 68% of packaged food and beverages, are a key contributor to rising rates of diabetes and liver, heart and dental disease.”

Many of the world’s largest food companies had pushed back against the change, arguing that people process added sugars and naturally-occurring sugars the same way, and that there’s no need to distinguish. Some, though, were supporters of the change, including Mars and Nestlé (which said that enough science now exists to support the shift).

The change represents a major policy accomplishment for Michelle Obama, who has labored over health initiatives while in the White House.

“I am thrilled that the [US Food and Drug Administration] has finalized a new and improved Nutrition Facts label that will be on food products nationwide,” Obama said in statement. “This is going to make a real difference in providing families across the country the information they need to make healthy choices.”