The Food and Drug Administration has announced new rules for food labeling that will require companies to declare added sugars. Some nutritionists say this change could confuse consumers who are not educated about the differences between added sugars and natural sugars.
Nutritionists agree that the human body’s process for metabolizing added sugars and naturally occurring sugars is the same. So why would the FDA require companies to declare the two types of sugars separately?
“The FDA is hoping that consumers will use this to be able to look at a food and say, 'This food has a lot of added sugar, so maybe there aren’t as many other nutrients present either,'" said Karin Allen, an associate professor in Utah State University's department of nutrition, dietetics and food sciences. "Maybe it’s more likely to have just empty calories.”
Although the label has been designed to help consumers choose more nutrient-rich food, some nutritionists say it may have the opposite effect. Courtney Gaine, who holds a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences and is the CEO of the Sugar Association, said it may skew consumers’ views on what foods are healthy.
“It could be confusing because there could be new focus on added sugars by consumers where it becomes a point of purchase decision," Gaine said. "If they see a food that has higher amounts of added sugars, even if that food is healthy, say yogurt or cereal or oatmeal, they may be less likely to choose it.”
Allen said consumers may look at the labels and assume foods that have more added sugars than natural sugars are less healthy than foods that have a larger overall amount of sugar.
But the label change isn’t necessarily bad news for consumers, Allen said. With a little education, she said, it could be a useful resource.
“It does have the potential to be confusing," Allen said. "It also has the potential to be helpful. It really comes down to how much effort the FDA puts into educating consumers and providing easy-to-understand material. But I do think part of that will rely on consumers taking a little more active role in relying on themselves to make sure they’re aware.”
Manufacturers have until July 2018 to comply with the FDA’s new labeling instructions, but some may implement the new rule as early as July.