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Should Added Sugar Appear On Food Labels?

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Sugar has become enemy No. 1 in the nutrition world—and health officials are finally listening to the complaints. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering changes to the nutrition label, proposing to break up the total amount of sugar in a food and how much of that amount comes from added sweeteners. Why that matters: Sugars that are added to a food by the manufacturer—things like high fructose corn syrup and white sugar—have been linked with obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. These sugars aren't in their "natural" form, and the World Health Organization (among others) suggests they are worse for your body than the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables.

But as of right now, sugar from fruit and dairy—the natural kind—is lumped in with all other types of unhealthy added sugars on nutrition labels, explains Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author ofThe Flexitarian Diet. “Think about yogurt, Raisin Bran, date-based bars—these products have the same total sugar as a candy bar, but if the numbers were broken down, their added sugar would appear much less than the processed treat.”

The FDA's hope was that through separating added and total sugar amounts, people would be able to make healthier choices. But in a new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, this approach just caused more confusion. When researchers showed people the broken down sugar labels, they actually miscalculated the amount of sugar in the product more often than they did when using the current label. People were unsure whether the added sugar was already included in the tally of the total sugar (correct!), or whether the total count for one serving was actually the added sugar plus the total. (Real Women Share Their Daily Sugar Intake and Healthy Eating Habits.)

“The nutrition facts panel has always been confusing to consumers, especially regarding fats and sugars,” says Kathleen Zelman, R.D., a member of Jamba Juice’s Healthy Living Council. (Find out more in Everything You Need to Know About Sugar.)

But added sugar is confusing too! That's because it's not just code for processed sugar. "The government's listing of what qualifies as an added sugar includes table sugar, brown sugar, agave, honey, and fruit juice concentrate,” explains Zelman. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which sets dietary guidelines, considers these added sugars to be “empty calories” because they contain no nutrients.

The bottom line: While the FDA’s proposed label may not be ideal for people to understand their exact sugar count (which is important if you're trying to stick below the recommended 30 grams per day), it’s important to understand there are in fact added sugars in foods, regardless of whether or not you know the amount. This is especially important considering that the average American eats 83 grams of added sugar per day—nearly triple the recommended amount! While the most common culprits are things like soda, cookies, and ice cream, artificial sugar is also commonly added to seemingly healthy things (like these 8 Healthy Foods with Crazy-High Sugar Counts).

The most important move is just that the FDA work to call out added sugars somewhere on the box. “Information is power,” Blatner explains. And until a new label or packaging is decided on, keep reading the old ones. The American Heart Association recommends that you to keep your added sugars to 30 grams or less per day. Look at the ingredients to help do that. The only safe sweeteners are straight from fruits or vegetables—but in excess can still put you at risk for developing diabetes or obesity.

Sorry ladies, that’s the not-so-sweet truth.

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