Sugar highs: Modified product labels may help reduce intake

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Graphic from http://www.fda.gov

By Sara Freund

It’s hard to resist the smell of hot gooey cinnamon rolls and syrupy holiday coffee. It hits your taste buds and releases dopamine, lighting up the brain’s reward system.

“Food labels now don’t distinguish between added sugar and natural sugar. Milk might have 12 grams of sugar but that is different from the added sugar in a candy bar,” said Isabel Maples, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Including the amount of added sugars on nutrition facts labels is one change the FDA is assessing. The FDA is still reviewing whether they will make changes proposed in February, according to FDA representative Theresa Eisenman.

Added sugars would become a subcategory of sugars and the label would show if a product has added sugar or not. In other changes, serving sizes would match a more realistic standard based on amounts people actually eat.

Added sugar is now abundant in our food supply, especially in highly processed foods like soda, sweet cereals, and even canned soup. Nearly 16 percent of total daily calories come from added sugars.

The over consumption of added sugar is associated with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic health problems.

Reducing added sugar to only 5-10 percent of total daily calories is recommended by organizations like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Institute of Medicines, American Heart Association and the World Health Organization.

The obesity rates among adults skyrocketed from just under 15 percent in 1980 to 34 percent in 2007. During this same period the amount of added sugar in the food supply has also increased. Added sugar, more so than natural sugar, is a likely factor in this obesity epidemic, according to nutritionists interviewed.

“When you have something more complex like an apple, which has sugar, but also fiber and nutrients, that feeds your body. When you have high sugar food, like soda, it is an empty calorie,” said Marcy Kirshenbaum, a certified nutritionist at Whole Health Chicago.

The body processes foods with natural sugar differently than foods with added sugar.  Low nutrient foods, like breakfast pastries or packaged snacks, are often high in added sugar. Eating these items curb hunger in the short-term but provide little or no essential vitamins.

Added sugar is put into food for taste and texture so decreasing sugar intake can make a huge flavor difference for people accustomed to high levels of sweetness.

“For people who are struggling to eliminate sugar, sometimes I suggest adding other spices or herbs to flavor foods like cinnamon, nutmeg and all-spice,” said Heather Mangieri, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.