Criticism of Added Sugars Labeling Consumer Research Is Off-Base

Highlights: 
  • Some critics have attempted to refute concerns about the proposed addition of an “Added Sugars” line to the Nutrition Facts Label on food packages.
  • However, the critics have not produced evidence to back up their claims.
  • The claims run counter to rigorous research by the IFIC Foundation and FDA demonstrating that consumers could be misled, not enlightened, by the addition of an “Added Sugars” line.
  • An “Added Sugars” line could lead consumers to miscalculate the total amount of sugars in a food, suggesting that proposals for such labeling could backfire.

In recent days, some critics have attempted to refute concerns about the proposed addition of an “Added Sugars” line to the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL) on food packages. Some have gone as far as to say that they “don’t see any legitimacy” in those concerns and that “the evidence firmly backs” the underlying proposals.

However, the critics have not produced evidence to back up their claims that the proposal would assist consumers in maintaining healthful dietary practices, instead relying on sweeping assertions delivered with conviction. Even worse, the claims run counter to rigorous research by the IFIC Foundation and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demonstrating that consumers instead could be misled, not enlightened, by the addition of an “Added Sugars” line.

The IFIC Foundation conducted its research—both qualitative and quantitative—more than a year ago, which strongly indicated that the addition of an “Added Sugars” line to nutrition labels could lead consumers to miscalculate the total amount of sugars in a food. The findings suggest that proposals for such labeling could backfire, rather than help consumers make healthful choices in their food and beverage purchases.

Our research, which formed the basis of comments we submitted Oct. 13 on the FDA labeling proposal, was published online earlier this year by the peer-reviewed Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The methodology behind our research is sound, and we have been transparent and exhaustive in its release. Subsequent research, including by no less an authority as the FDA, lent support to our findings and followed a methodology very similar to our own.

For instance, both the IFIC Foundation and FDA conducted web-based surveys via online panels of Americans ages 18 years and older.  We commissioned Turner Research Network (Dunwoody, Ga.) to conduct the consumer research using Research Now online consumer panels. Similarly, FDA collected responses from an online consumer panel maintained by a contractor (Ipsos).

Beyond consumer misinterpretation, there are many legitimate reasons that speak to the challenges involved in the labeling of added sugars. For one, from a technical standpoint, no analytical laboratory method exists to distinguish between added sugars and other sugars in a finished product, making it difficult for the FDA to identify or regulate the amount of “added” vs. other sugars in products. It’s not just lab methods—our bodies also don’t distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars.

Another example comes from FDA’s own consumer research. Because consumers are inundated with more and more information about sugar these days (both inflammatory and informational), it’s not surprising to learn that including an “Added Sugars” line on the food label alters the way they judge the healthfulness of products.

FDA found that consumers “perceived the added sugars content of the most nutritious meal to be higher when added sugars were declared.” The result of this misperception could negatively impact our dietary choices, as FDA also found that consumers deliberately chose more nutritious products (i.e., those with more of the nutrients we encourage consumption of) less often due to the mere presence of an “Added Sugars” line.

Neither of these scenarios would aid consumers in improving the healthfulness of their diets. We all want a more user-friendly NFL that provides clear information for consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.

Decisions about what information goes onto food labels should not be made lightly. Historically, the FDA has not made such decisions based on associations to health outcomes (as would be the case with added sugars) as opposed to demonstrated causation, which they did for trans fat. In the case of trans fat, FDA relied on clinical trials showing direct evidence of increased risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Changes to the food label are most effective when they are evidence-based, relevant to health or safety, enforced by sound analytics, and take into account actual human attitudes and behavior, not merely our good intentions.

The intention of the Nutrition Facts labeling proposal is to facilitate more healthful dietary patterns among consumers. Consumer research conducted by both the FDA and IFIC Foundation doesn’t support the inclusion of an “Added Sugars” line on the NFL as a means to meet this objective.

Kris Sollid, RD, is Director of Nutrients Communications at the International Food Information Council and IFIC Foundation.