The existing nutrition label, and a draft version of changes from the FDA are shown side-by-side.
The existing Nutrition Facts label, and a draft version of changes the FDA is proposing. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Many Americans are consuming more foods with added sugars, inevitably lowering their intake of foods loaded with essential nutrients, fiber and phytochemicals—all of which can prevent chronic diseases.

It’s a significant issue that has spurred the government to take action.

On average, according to the Food and Drug Administration, Americans get about 16 percent of their total calories from added sugars. These are also known as “empty calories,” found in items such as baked goods, candy, ice cream, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sport drinks and energy drinks.

For most people, their added sugar intake is anywhere from 6 to 16 teaspoons a day.

In hopes of better informing consumers about their intake, the FDA has proposed rules that would require food manufacturers to change the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods and beverages.

Among other notable updates, manufacturers would have to add a line for added sugars, as well as indicating the Percent Daily Value of this item.

The Nutrition Facts label currently includes a single line for sugars, which includes sugars naturally occurring in foods and sugars added in the production process.

The new listing of added sugars would be located and indented under sugars, clearly marked so consumers can differentiate between sugar and added sugar.

It’s an important distinction, and a much-needed update to the label.

The changes to the Nutrition Facts label are supported by multiple expert groups, including the Institute of Medicine and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The goal is to improve public health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, cancer and heart disease.

Some helpful concepts to understand:

Percent Daily Value

The Percent Daily Value identifies how much of a specific nutrient or component, in the given serving of food or drink, contributes to your daily nutrition intake.

The proposed Percent Daily Value for added sugars should not exceed 10 percent of a person’s total daily calories, according to the new recommendations.

For a person on a daily diet of 2,000 calories, this means they could consume 200 calories of added sugars a day, or about 50 grams (a little more than 12 teaspoons).

Added vs. natural

Any sugars added to foods and beverages during the production or preparation process is an added sugar. This can include natural sugars such as brown sugar, white sugar and honey, as well as chemically manufactured sugars such as high fructose corn syrup.

Other added sugars include: raw sugar, corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup solids, malt syrup, nectars, anhydrous dextrose, powdered sugar, invert sugar, maltose, molasses, cane juice, corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, liquid fructose and sugar cane juice.

Natural sugars occur naturally in foods, such as lactose in milk or fructose in fruit.

Until the new labels come out, the best way to determine if a food item contains added sugar is to look at the ingredients list. It won’t tell you how much is there, but it’ll at least let you know it’s there.

Nutrition Facts label

The FDA plans to give food manufacturers two years to comply with the new labeling requirements, once the rules are approved. It’s possible the approval could come sometime this year, although the FDA has not speculated on the timeline.

The FDA’s proposed rules would also change the serving size requirements, among other important modifications.

It would update the Percent Daily Values for nutrients such as sodium, dietary fiber and Vitamin D, for instance, helping consumers better understand the nutrition information in context to their total daily diet.

The FDA’s proposed changes were initially introduced in March 2014, with a supplemental proposal added in July 2015 to address the Percent Daily Value of added sugars, among other issues. The latest changes would help people limit their intake of added sugars.

The best thing you can do, of course, is choose whole, unprocessed foods, with an emphasis on a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.

Learn more about Spectrum Health’s nutrition counseling and weight management programs. Have questions? Consult a registered dietitian nutritionist at 616.486.6315.