The federal government’s decision to update food labels marked a change for consumers. For the first time, beginning in 2018, nutrition labels will be required to list a breakdown of both the total sugars and the added sugars in packaged foods.
Why are food labels being revised?
The shift came after years of urging by many nutrition experts, who say that excess sugar is a primary cause of obesity and heart disease. Many in the food industry opposed the emphasis on added sugars, arguing that the focus should be on calories rather than sugar. They say that highlighting added sugar on labels is unscientific, and that the sugar that occurs naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables is essentially no different than the sugar commonly added to packaged foods.
What about “natural” sweeteners?
Food companies like to market agave nectar, beet sugar, evaporated cane juice and many other “natural” sweeteners as healthier alternatives to high-fructose corn syrup. But whatever their source, they are all very similar. To suggest one is healthier than another is a stretch. In fact, the F.D.A. urged food companies to stop using the term evaporated cane juice because it is “false or misleading” and “does not reveal that the ingredient’s basic nature and characterizing properties are those of a sugar.”
What’s the issue with added sugars?
It mainly comes down to the way they’re packaged.
Naturally occurring sugar is almost always found in foods that contain fiber, which slows the rate at which the sugar is digested and absorbed. (One exception to that rule is honey, which has no fiber.) Fiber also limits the amount of sugar you can consume in one sitting.
A medium apple contains about 19 grams of sugar and four grams of fiber, or roughly 20 percent of a day’s worth of fiber. Not many people would eat three apples at one time. But plenty of children and adults can drink a 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi, which has 55 grams of added sugar – roughly the amount in three medium apples – and no fiber. Fiber not only limits how much you can eat, but how quickly sugar leaves the intestine and reaches the liver.
Why is it a problem to have too much sugar?
Many nutrition experts say that sugar in moderation is fine for most people. But in excess it can lead to metabolic problems beyond its effects on weight gain. The reason, studies suggest, is fructose. Any fructose you eat is sent straight to your liver, which specializes in turning it into droplets of fat called triglycerides.
While many health organizations – including AICR – recommend avoiding sugary drinks, this highlights the powerful affect that cutting out one single part of the diet may have, independent of other healthy changes.
A study focused on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a condition that can eventually cause cirrhosis and even liver cancer, suggests that a daily sugary drink increases the risk for NAFLD, especially – but not only – among overweight individuals.
Obesity and overweight are key risk factors for NAFLD, when there is extra fat in liver cells not caused by alcohol. AICR’s latest report on liver cancer, found that obesity increases the risk of this cancer. And research currently links sugary beverages to weight gain and obesity.
How much sugar is too much?
One of the largest studies of added sugar consumption, which was led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that adults who got more than 15 percent of their daily calories from added sugar had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The biggest sources for adults were soft drinks, fruit juices, desserts and candy.
While those might seem like obvious junk foods, about half of the sugar Americans consume is “hidden” in less obvious places like salad dressings, bread, low-fat yogurt and ketchup. In fact, of the 600,000 food items for sale in America, about 80 percent contain added sugar.
Follow the World Health Organization’s guidelines, which recommend that adults and children consume no more than about six teaspoons daily of added sugar.