The Spotlight on Sugar: Proposed Initiatives Call to Reduce Sugar Intake, Imply Not All Sugars Created Equal

As Jaime Schwartz addressed in her recent post, new nutrition labeling changes could have big implications for marketing and communications professionals. This summary takes a deeper dive into labeling concerns looking at the implications of added sugar labeling in light of the guidance WHO proposed last week.

Not All Sugars Are Created Equal


For centuries, sugar has been one of the most important and revered commodities traded around the world. In recent weeks, however, sugar took a rather tough beating. For one, on February 26, the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed Nutrition Facts label called out “added sugars” for the first time. Then this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued draft guidelines encouraging people to cut their sugar intake by half. Given this, companies should anticipate further scrutiny around sweeteners and be prepared to answer hard questions from consumers and influencers on sugar’s role in diabetes, heart health, obesity and tooth decay.

What you need to know:

Found on most U.S. food packages, the Nutrition Facts label is intended to help consumers make informed food choices, and sugars have always been part of the information provided on that label. The FDA’s proposal would mandate several key changes, including listing “added sugars,” which differentiates between foods that contain naturally occurring sugar and foods that have sugar added during the manufacturing process.

  • The current label contains a line for “sugars.” The proposed rule would require declaration of “added sugars” to help consumers understand how much sugar is naturally occurring and how much has been added to the product.
    • Including added sugars on the new Nutrition Facts label would allow consumers who want to limit their added sugar intake to compare various brands of similar products.
    • The proposal aligns with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation to reduce caloric intake from added sugars and solid fats.
    • Calories and serving sizes will become more prominent and start to reflect the way most of us really eat, making the listed sugar (and calorie) levels appear significantly higher.
    • FDA is expected to finalize the rule by year’s end. Once the rule goes into effect, companies will have two years to comply. The Nutrition Facts panel has not been changed since 2006 when trans fat labeling became mandatory.

Not All Sugars Are Created Equal
While % Daily Value is not established for sugars and does not appear on the label in the US, the WHO recommends that no more than 10 percent of an individual’s calories should come from “free sugars” – the equivalent of 12 teaspoons a day for the average adult. Moreover, WHO’s new draft guidance state that a reduction below 5% each day has an additional benefit.

  • This draft guidance advises a reduction to six teaspoons of sugar per day to help avoid health problems like obesity and tooth decay. That includes sugars added to foods and those present in honey, fruit juices and concentrates, maple syrup, but not those occurring naturally in fruit.
  • The new drafted guidelines by the United Nation’s health body are based on a number of analyses of published scientific studies on the consumption of sugar by children and adults.
  • On average, Americans get 16 percent of their total calories from added sugars. The major sources of added sugars in the diet are soda, energy and sports drinks, grain-based desserts, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, dairy-based desserts and candy.

What this means for the food industry:

  • This is the biggest change to the Nutrition Facts label since it was created in 1993 and would affect all packaged foods except certain meat, poultry and processed egg products, which are regulated by the USDA.
  • The changes could prove costly, requiring new packaging formats and possibly product reformulations to further decrease sugar content (current estimate for the industry spending is $2 billion).
  • More scrutiny around labels may affect sales, especially for soft drinks, cereal and snacks. Even the “healthiest” of packaged foods can have fairly high amounts of added sugar (i.e. bread products, flavored Greek yogurt, low fat pudding, sauces and condiments, canned and packaged fruit), and now consumers will be looking for added sugars where they weren’t necessarily before.
  • However, manufacturers of sugar substitutes and health and wellness brands might be able to capitalize on these changes, with the new label boosting sales of foods low in calories/added sugars.
  • Currently, there’s no %DV for sugar; however, in light of WHO’s statement, there may be increased pressure on the IOM to establish %DV for sugar.
    • For background, in the US, FDA sets nutritional standards for food labels, but the Institute of Medicine (IOM) sets nutritional standards for dietary intake. The IOM suggested that the maximum level of intake of added sugars should be 25% or less of calories.
    • Many experts and food manufacturers emphasize that whether naturally occurring or added, sugars are chemically identical, and a type of carbohydrate that our bodies use for energy. New labels will raise questions around this and similar statements and draw attention to ingredients like sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, molasses, honey, syrups, brown rice syrup and cane juice.

As our Food 2020 research has shown, Food eVanglists continue to demand information and a voice. Backed up by FDA and WHO, they will likely publicly push for further sugar reductions if companies fail to promptly address the issue. While there’s no surefire way to answer these questions, companies need to be transparent and prepared with reactive statements around sugar content in their foods, emphasizing company stance to support choice in the marketplace, palatability or highlighting any initiatives that are currently in place to lower sugar/calorie levels in their food.