- The Nutrition Facts label became mandatory in the 1990s.
- Added Sugars information has been required on the Nutrition Facts label since 2016.
- Pure honey, pure maple syrup and other single-ingredient sugar products do not have to list the grams of added sugars on their Nutrition Facts labels, but they must include a percent daily value for added sugars.
- The FDA encourages manufacturers of single-ingredient sugar products to use an FDA labeling exemption to help consumers better understand added sugars information.
The iconic U.S. Nutrition Facts label is more than three decades old. In 1990, the U.S. Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) established that standardized nutrition information must appear on food and beverage packaging. In 1994, the NLEA became effective, and the Nutrition Facts label as we know it today made its debut. Fast forward to 2016, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was ready to update the look of the original label—along with some of the information the label is required to provide. As a result, the Nutrition Facts label now displays information about sugars in two ways: as Added Sugars and Total Sugars.
The FDA’s revision clarifies the way sugars are labeled with the intent to provide information that can help people follow Dietary Guidelines recommendations. For most food and beverage products, these updates are straightforward. Take cow’s milk, for example. There are 12 grams of sugars in one serving (one cup) of milk. These sugars are all listed on the Nutrition Facts label as Total Sugars because they come from lactose, a naturally occurring sugar found in the milk of mammals. Flavored cow’s milk, like chocolate milk, contains 12 grams of naturally occurring lactose per serving, but it also has sugars like high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose added to it. If 12 grams of added sugars are in a serving of flavored milk in addition to the 12 grams of naturally occurring sugars, then 24 grams would be listed under Total Sugars and 12 grams would be listed under Added Sugars on the Nutrition Facts label.
What about the labeling of sugars in pure honey and pure maple syrup?
The labeling of sugars gets stickier for foods like pure (100%) honey and pure (100%) maple syrup because these foods don’t just contain sugars—they are sugars.
Honey and maple syrup are used as ingredients in processed foods, but they are also purchased for use as a condiment; for example, honey is a common addition to tea, and maple syrup feels synonymous with pancakes. In either case, pure honey and pure maple syrup are naturally occurring sugars that are added to other foods and drinks. Because their unique flavors are part of their attractiveness, concerns have been raised that labeling pure honey or pure maple syrup as containing added sugars would be misleading, leaving consumers with the false impression that these products have sugars added to them and thus making pure honey and pure maple syrup seem less natural—and therefore less desirable.
On the other hand, neither honey nor maple syrup provides substantial nutrition beyond its calories. While it is true that honey and maple syrup have more vitamins and minerals per gram than table sugar, the number of calories it would take to get a significant amount of these micronutrients from honey or maple syrup effectively negates any expected health benefit. In that sense, honey and maple syrup are no different from table sugar.
Although IFIC’s Food & Health Survey has documented in recent years that most people are trying to limit or avoid sugar in their diet, other recent consumer research from us suggests that people hold a more favorable view of honey than other sugars. Despite varying public perceptions about the healthfulness of different types of sugars, the impact of sugars on health is driven by the amount consumed and not the type—which is one reason why labeling the amounts of added sugars on Nutrition Facts label is important.
What does the FDA say about the labeling of sugars in pure honey and pure maple syrup?
According to the FDA, added sugars are sugars that are either added during the processing of foods or sugars that are packaged as such, including free monosaccharides such as fructose, disaccharides such as sucrose, and sugars from syrups and honey. This definition means that pure honey and pure maple syrup are considered to be added sugars (regardless of their natural origins, packaging, or how they are consumed) and must be conveyed on the Nutrition Facts label as added sugars.
However, the Farm Bill passed in 2018 states that single-ingredient sugar products such as honey and maple syrup do not need to declare grams of added sugars on their Nutrition Facts labels. The FDA, however, requires these products to include a percent daily value for added sugars on their Nutrition Facts label. Alongside the percent daily value for added sugars, the FDA has made an exemption that allows the use of a “†” symbol, which directs label readers to a footnote that explains the contribution that these sugars make to the amount of added sugars that is recommended in our diet.
In 2019, the FDA issued final guidance to manufacturers for the labeling of added sugars on single-ingredient sugar products, including pure honey and pure maple syrup. This guidance from FDA is intended to encourage manufacturers to use the “†” symbol and footnote to provide useful information to consumers.
Here’s an example label depicting the exception the FDA made:
This blog post includes contributions from Ali Webster, PhD, RD.