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Why the sugar industry hates the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label

The food industry met its match — in first lady Michelle Obama. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In early 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it was going to consider making a few changes to the nutrition facts label found on just about every food item sitting on grocery store shelves around the nation. And the food industry freaked out.

For more than two decades, the label had gone unchanged, which, for the most part, food manufacturers seemed to like. Specifically, the industry was content that the label did not reveal the amount of "added sugars" in a product -- the sugar content not present before the food was produced and packaged -- or how much of these added sugars people should consume daily.

But suddenly, these things (as well as others) were being reconsidered. And the industries these changes were likely to affect weren't about to just sit around and watch.

The nutrition labels on your food are getting an overhaul for the first time in 20 years as the FDA plans to make them easier to read. Here's what you need to know. (Video: The Washington Post)

Several major food associations, including (but not limited to) the American Bakers Association, American Beverage Association, American Frozen Foods Institute, Corn Refiners Association, International Dairy Foods Association and National Confectioners Association, fought vehemently to preserve the existing label. They waged a long, drawn-out battle against the new "added sugars" components, which lasted more than two years. In the end, they lost.

On Friday, first lady Michelle Obama unveiled the new label, which represents major victories both for her legacy and the efforts of advocacy groups and prominent scientists who have argued that the previous version made it difficult for consumers to assess the nutritional quality of any given food item.

"This is going to make a real difference in providing families across the country the information they need to make healthy choices," Obama said in a statement.

The new label, which can be seen below, might not look all that different, but it most certainly is. Among the many changes, which include larger type for the number of calories and servings per container, is a new line located just beneath "total sugars." It tells consumers exactly how much of the sugar was added by the manufacturer, and what percentage of the daily recommended intake that added sugar comprises.

The change addresses some of the early arguments waged by the sugar industry, which argued that having a line that says “sugars” and another that says “added sugars” would be confusing, since it wouldn't make clear that the latter is part of the first. The FDA addressed that problem by changing “sugars” to “total sugars” and adding "includes" to the “added sugars” line.

Still, the industry argued that the label puts added sugar in an unfairly negative light, vilifying even small amounts.

"The Sugar Association is disappointed by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) ruling to require an 'added sugars' declaration and daily reference value (DRV) on the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL)," the association said in a statement Friday morning. "The extraordinary contradictions and irregularities, as well as the lack of scientific justification in this rulemaking process are unprecedented for the FDA."

Not all food organizations, however, agreed. Both Mars and Nestle have supported the measure. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade organization representing many large food and beverage companies, issued a statement calling the update “timely.”

Several health and nutrition groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have issued statements expressing their support for the new label (CSPI, for its part, has been lobbying for them for almost two decades), which they say help inform people about the alarming prevalence of sugar in the American diet.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and a longtime critic of the sugar industry, called the announcement an "extraordinary accomplishment" on her blog Food Politics and told The Washington Post that it "has to be scored as a huge win."

The sugar industry has used its political clout (and pretty large sums of cash) to defend its place in the American diet. Last year, decades-old documents revealed how the industry skewed the government's medical research in the 1960s on the role sugar plays in tooth decay — and ultimately, how much sugar officials recommended for the American diet. The American Beverage Association, which represents prominent purveyors of sugary drinks, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, has spent millions battling various soda tax bills that have popped up in recent years.

The result has been a string of victories that have helped infuse what we eat with a great deal more sugar than virtually any doctor would recommend. As John Oliver pointed out in 2014, sugar is so prevalent in the American diet, it creeps into the strangest things, including Clamato juice, Subway sandwiches, Luna granola bars, Yoplait yogurt and California Pizza Kitchen salads. It's little wonder that per capita sugar consumption in the United States is something of a global anomaly — the average American consumes more than 126 grams of sugar per day, which is slightly more than three 12-ounce cans of Coca-Cola and more than twice the average sugar intake of 54 countries observed by Euromonitor, including Canada and Britain.

The hope is that the new label, which makes clear when a food manufacturer has relied heavily on sugar to make its product tasty, will help Americans make more informed choices about the foods they eat. The daily recommended limit is 50 grams of added sugar, which, as Politico pointed out, means a can of soda will look much less appealing to anyone who bothers to peek at the label.

A regular Pepsi, for example, has 69 grams of sugar, so it would have to be listed has having 138 percent of the Daily Value for added sugars.

Of course, this is precisely the sort of information an industry whose bottom line is directly tied to the profligate use of sugar could do without. So it should come as no surprise that the industry's response was a frustrated mumble, an acknowledgement of defeat.