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FDA says consumers should have more details about ‘added sugars’ in foods

The devil is in the details. (FDA)

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday moved forward with a controversial proposal requiring food nutrition labels to include the amounts of "added sugars," meaning sugar not already in the food before it was produced and packaged.

But rather than merely requiring information about the amount of added sugars, the FDA said it also will require manufacturers to include what percentage the sugar adds to a person's daily recommended intake. Agency officials said the move would add much-needed context and help consumers better understand how the sugar they eat contributes to the total calories they consume each day.

“The FDA has a responsibility to give consumers the information they need to make informed dietary decisions for themselves and their families,” said Susan Mayne, director of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, noting that food labels have long contained similar information for dietary fiber, sodium and saturated fat. “Without information like this about a nutrient, it's hard to know if you're eating too much or too little in a given day."

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The measure is part of a broader overhaul of the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label, which has remained unchanged for two decades. The FDA first proposed the new requirements last year when it unveiled a host of suggested changes to current food labeling. At the time, it proposed only that companies list the amount of added sugar in each product. Friday's proposal expands that requirement to include additional information about the daily intake percentage.

FDA officials said Friday their decision is "now further supported by newly reviewed studies suggesting healthy dietary patterns, including lower amounts of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, are strongly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. When sugars are added to foods and beverages to sweeten them, they add calories without providing additional nutrients."

The World Health Organization and American Heart Association are among the organizations that have warned about the health risks of excess sugar intake, saying it contributes to a wide range of diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

[Food labels to get first makeover in 20 years with emphasis on calories, sugar]

The FDA said it will receive comments on its latest proposal for 75 days. But it didn't take nearly that long for sharply divided reactions to roll in from consumer and public health experts, who see the move as critical in helping combat the nation's obesity epidemic, and from major food industry associations, which argue the disclosures are misguided.

The Sugar Association, which represents some of the nation's largest sugar producers, said in a statement that the FDA's latest proposal is based on "limited and weak scientific evidence" that doesn't meet the agency's own standards. "The fact is that the preponderance of science and the data on caloric sweeteners do not support a suggested limit on sugars intake," the group said, adding that it plans to "oppose this proposal and examine the level of scientific evidence at the basis of the misguided  recommendation."

Other industry groups, including the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association, International Food Information Council and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, also have questioned the push to label added sugars, suggesting that the change could be onerous to implement and likely to confuse consumers rather than help them.

Michele Simon, a public-health attorney and consultant who has been an outspoken critic of the nation's food industry, called such complaints a "smoke screen."

"The reality is [the industry is] worried consumers will see there's all this [added] sugar in food that they didn't know about, and will make decisions accordingly," Simon said. "This will finally give consumers the information they need to make more informed choices."

The new labels, if enacted, could indeed lead to some striking information about the amount of sugar that Americans routinely consume. For instance, the FDA said that based on existing evidence, it plans to set 50 grams of added sugars as the recommended daily value for an average adult. Therefore, a person who consumes a 20-ounce sugary drink might now see on the label that it contains 66 grams of sugar — or 132 percent of the daily value.

In addition to the requirements around added sugars, the overhauled Nutrition Facts label unveiled last year would include more than a half dozen significant changes, including more prominent calorie counts and more realistic serving sizes. The labels are found on roughly 700,000 products.

Friday's move comes a month after the FDA  said it will give manufacturers three years to remove artificial trans fat from the nation’s food supply, which the agency estimated could reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of heart attack deaths each year. The FDA began requiring the addition of trans fat to labels in 2006, and the use of the substance afterward fell dramatically across the food supply.