Understanding Nutritional Label

By now you’ve noticed the new nutrition label, which features more prominent serving size and calorie count, as well as ‘added sugars’ as a subset of ‘total sugars’ and a different selection of key nutrients at the bottom. The new label, which came into effect in January 2020, is designed to help consumers meet their nutritional requirements while also staying within the recommended calorie limits.

Unfortunately, while key information is easier to find on the new nutrition label, consumers are still unsure about what ‘added sugars’ are, and that impacts which items they choose to purchase. If you recall, I wrote about infant and toddler intake of added sugars in my column last month.

A recent study published in the February 2020 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics assessed consumers’ ability to interpret ‘added sugars’ on the new nutrition label, and how that affected their decision to buy a certain product.

Because studies have linked added sugar intake to an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and cardiovascular disease, it’s important to monitor intake of added sugars. Additionally, by including ‘added sugars’ on the new nutrition label, it’s possible food manufacturers will make efforts to increase their products’ healthfulness. The current recommendation under the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is to keep added sugar intake to less than 10% of daily calories.

First, let’s review what added sugars are. According to the Food and Drug Administration, ‘added sugars’ are “either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices that are in excess of what would be expected from the same volume of 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice of the same type.” Basically, if it’s not found naturally in the product, it’s an added sugar. This is why a loaf of bread has a few grams of added sugar, while 100% fruit juice has no added sugar. Non-nutritive sweeteners, such as stevia or aspartame, are not included in added sugars. It’s probably worth repeating that ‘natural’ sugars, such as honey and maple syrup, are included in added sugars. It should also be noted that ‘added sugars’ should not be ADDED TO ‘total sugars,’ rather they are a subset of ‘total sugars.’

The results of the study indicated that the new nutrition label made it easier to understand sugar content. Study participants were shown images of four products (flavored yogurt, orange juice, canned fruit and whole-grain bread), then divided into two groups, one being the current nutrition label and the other being the new nutrition label. Afterward, the participants were asked a series of questions to gauge their understanding of ‘added sugars’ and concerns or perceived health effects of added sugar, as well as their purchase intentions.

The results of the study also showed that the presence of ‘added sugars’ on the new nutrition label but did not have a significant effect on overall purchase intentions of participants. It did, however, seem to make participants less likely to buy certain products, such as the bread, which includes added sugars, and more likely to buy the juice, which does not have added sugars, but is very high in natural sugar. Generalizing this data seems to indicate that some consumers may value avoiding ‘added sugars’ without taking into account the product’s overall nutritional value.

Bottom Line: As long as you understand what, exactly, ‘added sugars’ refer to—and I already told you earlier in this column—the new nutrition label is your friend. Always read your labels (I do!) and remember to take into account ALL the information presented, not just calories or sugar alone. Added sugars aren’t the enemy, but they should be kept to a minimum. (That goes for total sugar, really. I’m looking at you, 100% juice. Drink responsibly, folks.) That poor loaf of whole-grain bread that has a few grams of added sugar is a perfect example of a food that can be part of a healthy, balanced meal, all while containing some added sugar. Next time you’re grocery shopping, compare a few flavored yogurts and you’ll see that their ‘added sugar’ content can vary quite a bit—I bet you know which one I’d choose.

Khanpur, N, Rimm, E, Moran, A. (2019). The Influence of the New US Nutrition Facts Label on Consumer Perceptions and Understanding of Added Sugars: A Randomized Controlled Experiment. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120(2), 197-208.






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