Proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label include a separate line for added sugars. Critics argue that all sugars are the same. Who is right?
The familiar Nutrition Facts label that appears on all packaged foods is getting an overhaul. In a recent blog post, I highlighted three things I particularly like about the proposed changes. For example, the current label shows how many grams of sugar a food contains but doesn’t distinguish between naturally occurring sugars (such as those in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products) and sugar from added sweeteners like sugar, corn syrup, or honey. The proposed new label shows these added sugars separately, which I think is a great idea.
Encouraging people to cut back on their sugar intake is a major priority in the fight against obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. But it’s not the naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables that we’re worried about. It’s all the sugar in your soda, tea, coffee, energy drinks, breakfast cereals, flavored yogurt, energy bars, snacks, and desserts that is causing the problem. When I suggest you try to limit your sugar intake to 25 grams a day, those are the grams of sugar I want you to count, not the sugar in your baby carrots!
See also: How to Reduce Your Added Sugar Intake
But some have argued that listing added sugars separately on Nutrition Facts labels is confusing and unnecessary. "Sugar is sugar," they say, "and it’s treated the same way by the body whether you add a spoonful of it to your coffee or drink a glass of juice." Well, yes and no.
Are All Sugars the Same?
A cup of milk and a cup of fruit punch both contain 12 grams of sugar—it's true. But the sugar in the milk is lactose and the sugar in the fruit punch is a mixture of glucose and fructose. All three of these compounds are classified as "sugars," and all have the same number of calories. But they are not treated the same by the body. They are digested and metabolized differently, and they have differing effects on blood sugar, appetite, nutrient absorption, and fat storage.
But that's not the main reason that I think added sugars should be listed separately on Nutrition Facts labels. It's what does and doesn't travel with natural and added sugars that matters more.
Along with the 12 grams of sugar in a cup of milk, you also get 8 grams of protein and a quarter of a day's supply of calcium and vitamin D. A cup of baked sweet potato has 12 grams of sugar, but also delivers a quarter of a day's worth of fiber and vitamin A. The fruit punch, on the other hand, delivers 12 grams of sugar and very little else.
My point is that the sugar you get in whole fruits, vegetables, and dairy products is usually accompanied by an array of vitamins and minerals as well as nutrients like protein and fiber that help fill you up. Added sugars, on the other hand, bring very little to the table in terms of nutrition or appetite control. They are empty calories—and those are precisely the ones that we want to target.
Listing the added sugars separately on Nutrition Facts label makes it a whole lot easier for you to keep tabs on your added sugar intake. It also makes it easier to understand where the sugars in a food are coming from. A carton of strawberry yogurt, for example, might contain a whopping 32 grams of sugar--but how much of that is from the milk and the strawberries and how much of it is from high fructose corn syrup? The new label would make it clear. (Hint: Don't kid yourself: About 80% of it is added sugar).