Published on August 18, 2015

What key ingredient is missing on that food label?What key ingredient is missing on that food label?

For all those conscientious parents who walk down the supermarket aisle carefully checking the Nutrition Facts labels on food packages, one critical ingredient can’t be found: total sugar.

What you see now is the small percentage of sugar found naturally in carbohydrates. It looks something like this:

  • Total carbohydrates   10g
  • Dietary fiber 1 g
  • Sugar 1 g

But what about all the sugar manufacturers add to processed foods?

Until now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not require such reporting—some say because of pressure from the food industry—and despite many health advocates’ calls for its inclusion.

That is about to change.

After many years, the FDA is formally proposing to include the amount of sugar the food industry adds to nutrition labels. The agency also has recommended consumption levels for sugar:  no more than about 200 calories a day, or 10 percent of the overall 2,000 calories generally recommended for nutrition guidance.

“This is a great idea,” said Courtney Driscoll, clinical nutrition manager of Cape Cod Healthcare, which includes Cape Cod and Falmouth hospitals.  “Sugar now will be highlighted just as fats and sodium (salt) long have been included on labels.”

“The more information consumers have about what they are putting into their bodies and those of their children, the better,” she added. “It is critical to make informed decisions about what you choose to eat.”

The new proposals come at a time when obesity and diabetes levels across the country, especially among children, are sharply rising.  And while many food producers oppose the new labeling, others like Mars Inc, makers of M&M’s and Snickers, have come out in favor of the change.

The current label requires listing total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, calcium and iron—and natural sugars.

“Consumers need to understand not only the amount of sugar contained in a product, but also where that sugar comes from,” Driscoll said. If the first ingredient on the label is apples, that’s OK, because the body is designed to metabolize that sugar. But that’s not the case when refined sugar is added to a cereal.”

Driscoll, who supervises food served to patients, staff and visitors at both hospitals, generally recommends that natural sugars be part of everyone’s balanced diet. “If you are eating fresh fruits, those sugars are usually not a worry. There are no food labels on an apple picked off a tree, but you know you are eating healthily.

“That’s different than 400 additional calories from sugar processed into your food,” she said.

One way to take charge of your sugar intake is to understand the difference between calories and “empty calories,” said Jason Rose, an athletic trainer in Cape Cod Hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program.

Empty calories refer to foods that contain many calories but few if any nutrients. They often feature sugars and syrups that are added during processing and preparation, such as cakes, cookies, pastries, donuts, soda, energy drinks, sports drinks and some fruit drinks, along with ice cream and even frozen yogurt.

Scientific evidence presented to the FDA showed how difficult it is to meet nutritional needs if you exceed 10 percent of your total calories from added sugar. The agency referred to growing evidence that lower amounts of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages are strongly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Learn more about the FDA’s proposal and how you can submit comments to the FDA before the agency completes its final regulations.