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Hard-Fought Battle over Added Sugar Labeling at the FDA: Public Health 1, Food Industry 0

, senior analyst and program manager, Center for Science and Democracy | May 20, 2016, 1:02 pm EDT
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At the Partnership for a Healthier America summit this morning, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the Food and Drug Administration’s newest rule. Two years in the making, the final rule will require, among other changes, inclusion of an ‘Added Sugars’ line separate from the total sugar line and a percent daily value for it on the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label found on the back of all food packages.

Science-based advocacy prevails in added sugar labeling

Let’s take a moment to celebrate this win and take pride in the science-based advocacy that made it happen. Numerous non-profit organizations and public health professionals have for years raised their concerns about the epidemic of sugar overload in our foods. And for just as long, the food industry has deployed all its tried and tested denial machine. America’s sugar consumption crisis, and food companies’ and their trade associations’ opposition to the FDA’s proposal for the added sugar declaration, even compelled John Oliver to dedicate a scathing segment on his show. The Center for Science and Democracy voiced its support for the public right’s to know through insightful analysis, commentary, decisionmaker meetings, and most importantly by mobilizing more than 62,000 supporters, scientists, and public health professionals to write to the FDA in support of the added sugar labeling on the foods they consume.

Our analyses exposed corporate influence on ensuring that sugar-laden foods remain within easy reach of consumers, especially the most vulnerable ones such as children and busy parents. On the FDA proposal specifically, our analysis of the public comments showed the overwhelming opposition from the food industry on the added sugar labeling. And despite the mounting scientific evidence on the association of sugar overconsumption with tooth decay, weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, most of the industry comments questioned the validity of the scientific evidence and the utility of the added sugar line on the label.


FDA unveiled the new Nutrition Fact label on May 20, 2016. Among other changes, the new FDA rule will require food companies to include “Added sugars,” in grams and as percent Daily Value. The new label will make it easier for consumers to make better informed food choices. Manufacturers will need to use the new label by July 26, 2018.

Improving consumers’ understanding of their daily sugar intake

Happily, FDA’s final rule goes one step further in requiring companies to include a percent daily value for the added sugars in their product, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. In doing so, FDA closely followed the rigorous science-based recommendations by USDA and HHS in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommending that consumers restrict daily intake of added sugars to a maximum of 10% of daily calories. A percent daily value will help consumers to put the added sugar amount in context of their total food consumption for the day, and to understand whether the amount of sugar listed on the label is low or high. Note, however, that many scientific and medical entities, such as the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, and the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, recommend that energy from added sugars in food and drinks not make up more than 5% of an individual’s total daily energy intake, for optimal health outcomes.

A victory for public health

As always, there is room for improvement. For example, FDA could reduce the daily limit on sugar intake to 5%, especially for children, whose lifelong taste preferences are shaped by early exposures to sweet foods, setting more appropriate serving sizes for younger consumers, and including the appropriate % daily values for caloric needs of young children. The current label still leaves the door open for food companies to produce and market high-sugar foods to children that have comparable serving sizes and sugar amounts to similar products meant for adults. But these are battles for another day.

Today, we applaud FDA for putting public health ahead of corporate pressure. Together the two FDA requirements for Nutrition Facts label on added sugars will help curb our addiction to it and mark a big win for the scientific community, public health professional, concerned individuals and families, and their right to know.

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  • uranium9

    One thing that’s been completely absent from the coverage of this rule is how added sugars are defined. Does it include only explicit sugar and presumably corn syrup? “Evaporated cane juice”? What about apple juice concentrate, agave syrup, raisin powder, dates, etc., all of which are used as high-sugar sweeteners in many foods? It’s really hard to say where to draw the line, but without including most of what I just listed, the number’s meaningless and will be gamed immediately by food processors.

    • Barbara Karas

      Good point!!!!! And recently I saw a portion size cereal box that said “no high fructose corn syrup” on the front of the box, but on the side it said “Corn Sugar”…and in case you want to know where I saw this box of cereal, it was on my tray in the hospital!!!!!! The rest of the “breakfast” on the hospital tray was two huge pancakes, some fake butter, and fake maple syrup (corn sweeteners again), orange juice and a “low fat” container of milk. They provided no coffee but put a packet of sugar on the tray….was this for the cereal or the non-exsistant coffee????? ARGGGGGGGG