Why Added Sugar Labels Matter for Diabetes Prevention

Added sugar labels help those trying to live a healthier lifestyle and prevent obesity

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Reducing sugar intake is an important goal for everyone, not only those with prediabetes or at risk of type 2 diabetes, but for everyone. Consuming sugar can lead to health problems such as weight gain, obesity, and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Common knowledge says that reducing sugar intake can help with diabetes prevention, but are you equipped to cut back? Do you know which types of sugars are the biggest contributors to type 2 diabetes, why they are harmful, and how to spot them?

With chronic diseases at the level of a public health crisis, cardiovascular disease and diabetes prevention are attracting attention. Healthy lifestyle changes such as losing weight and eating better can have an enormous impact on individual and population health. Targeting consumption of added sugars can help with both, and new policies reflect that.

For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require the nutrition labels on food packages to display added sugars. [1] This simple change is expected to prevent or delay millions of cases of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, improve quality of life, and save billions of dollars.

 
Added sugars will now have it’s own line from the FDA
 

Sugar and Public Health

Sugar is a fair target for many reasons. Its consumption is linked to type 2 diabetes, as it challenges your body’s insulin response and can eventually lead to high blood sugar. Did you also know that the more sugar you eat, the more likely you are to get high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease? That is before even considering that sugar often comes in a package with sodium and artery-clogging fats, which themselves are public health threats.

Sugar is also a frequent culprit in weight gain, as it contributes 4 calories per gram without filling you up very much. Added sugars are also in many foods linked to weight gain. For example, cakes, other baked goods and soft drinks are the biggest sources of calories for Americans are also among the top sources of added sugars. [2]

 

Here are the top sources of added sugars to avoid

Top Sources of Added Sugars in the American Diet [3]
Food or Beverage Sample Food Portion Size Grams of Sugar
  • Regular (non-diet) soda
  • Cola
  • 12 ounces
  • 40g
  • Candy, sugary foods
  • Peanut butter cups
  • 2 cups
  • 16g
  • Cake, cookies, quick breads, pastry, pie, tarts
  • Blueberry muffin
  • 1 large (4 oz.)
  • 36g
  • Fruit drinks and "-ades"
  • Fruit punch
  • 8 oz. (1 cup)
  • 30g
  • Dairy desserts (frozen yogurt, pudding, ice cream)
  • Vanilla frozen yogurt
  • 1/2 cup
  • 19g
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Rasin Bran
  • 1 cup
  • 19g
  • Yeast breads and rolls
  • White bread
  • 2 slices
  • 8g
 

What are Natural Sugars? vs. What are Added Sugars?

Total sugar is already listed on nutrition facts labels, so it is important to recognize the distinction between added and total sugars. A common way to describe sugars is to classify them as natural or added. Added sugars are those which are added to foods, often to sweeten them and sometimes to act as a thickener or preservative. White and brown sugar, honey, molasses, and corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup are just a few of the many common types of added sugars.

Natural sugars are present innately in certain foods. Some natural sugars, such as fructose in fruit, are sweet. Others, such as lactose in milk and dairy products, are not sweet. Vegetables also have some sugars.

Natural and added sugars act the same in your body when they are the same time. That is, fructose in fruit acts the same as fructose that may be in a chocolate sandwich cookie. The main difference for health and diabetes prevention is often the package that contains the natural or added sugar.

  • Natural sugars in fruit, vegetables, and milk may come with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and/or protein.

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks may come with nothing beneficial.

  • Pie, cake, breakfast cereal, and other foods with added sugars may have saturated fats, sodium, and refined starches.

Under the current regulations, food labels must show total sugars per serving. That includes both natural and added sugars. The label need not distinguish between the two types, and it can cause consumers to be misled when making purchasing decisions.

New Label Requirements

The FDA has established new regulations about sugar content declarations on nutrition labels. The new guidelines compel food manufacturers to state how many grams of added sugars are in each serving. The requirement is based on overwhelming evidence about the harms of too much sugar, and is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines’ findings that Americans eat too much added sugar.

The FDA also says, “it is difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits if you consume more than 10 percent of your total daily calories from added sugar.” For context:

  • That is 50 grams of sugar on a 2,000-calorie diet (the amount of sugar in two toaster pastries).

  • That is 40 grams of sugar on a 1,600-calorie diet (the amount of sugar in 12-oz. bottle of soda).

  • That is 30 grams of sugar on a 1,200-calorie diet (the amount of sugar in 1 cup of granola).

Companies with annual sales of at least $10 million in sales must use the new labels by the start of 2020, while smaller companies have an extra year to make the changes.

Projected Health Benefits

The projected impacts of the new labels are impressive. On a personal level, they can guide you in your food choices as you decrease added sugars.

For example, you may never again mistake an ounce of fruit snacks for a snack as healthy as a half-pound of strawberries just because they both have 10 grams of sugar. The new label will make it clear that the fruit snacks have added sugars, while the fresh strawberries do not. The strawberries will give you fiber and other nutrients, and can lead to benefits such as staying full for longer (good news for weight loss!) and lowering blood sugar and cholesterol (good news for diabetes and heart disease).

Sugar is not the only culprit in blood sugar spikes, carbohydrates can have a high glycemic index (GI) and contain glucose. Glucose enters your blood stream and can cause your blood glucose to rise, which can lead to impaired glucose tolerance. Normal blood sugar levels throughout the day can be referenced here. Lark also has a guide to reduce your blood sugar!

These and similar choices that you and millions of other Americans may make because of the new labels may add up to big public health benefits. One set of estimates includes these projections.

  • Preventing or delaying nearly 1 million cases of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

  • Gaining over a half-million quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs).

  • Saving over $90 billion in net healthcare costs and societal costs.

These figures become more impressive when considering that food manufacturers may reformulate some products to reduce their added sugar content. [3]

If you have prediabetes or are at high risk for type 2 diabetes for another reason, limiting added sugars may be one change to consider making. Reducing added sugars can help you lose weight and lessen insulin resistance directly, while also guiding you towards naturally healthier foods. The new labels can make healthy choices easier at a glance by showing added sugar content specifically. Lark Diabetes Care is another tool that can guide you towards good choices for weight and blood sugar.


Reference

  1. Huang Y et al. Cost-effectiveness of the US Food and Drug Administration added sugar labeling policy for improving diet and health. Circulation. 2019 Apr 15. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.036751.

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. Updated February 18, 2019. https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm

  3. Huth PJ, Fulgoni VL, Keast DR, Park K, Auestad N. Major food sources of calories, added sugars, and saturated fat and their contribution to essential nutrient intakes in the U.S. diet: data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (2003-2006). Nutr J. 2013;12:116. Published 2013 Aug 8. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-116