What to Know About Sugars on the Nutrition Facts Label

What to Know About Sugars on the Nutrition Facts Label

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized its update of the iconic Nutrition Facts label, which made news headlines across America. However, these types of major policy changes take time to be fully implemented. While the majority of food and beverage manufacturers were required to use the new label by January 1, 2021, the FDA set a separate deadline of July 1, 2021, for makers of pure honey, pure maple syrup and other pure sugars and syrups, as well as dried cranberry and cranberry beverage products. Many people may now be familiar with the updated look and information on the new Nutrition Fact label, but some of the information can be difficult to understand at first glance. Below are tips that can help to correctly interpret food label information about sugar.

Improving Total Comprehension of Added Sugars

The new FDA Nutrition Facts label presents information about sugars in two ways that are different from the original label. First, the amount of sugar found in one serving of a product is now displayed as “Total Sugars.” This information was previously displayed on the original label as “Sugars.” Second, there is a new line on the label for added sugars information; this is the first new line to appear on the Nutrition Facts label since trans fat labeling became mandatory in 2006. This new line represents the amount of sugar that has been added to a food or beverage during manufacturing. The decision to include added sugars information on the new label was based in part, on the conclusions of the 2015—2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) in a continued effort to help Americans eat more healthfully. The line for added sugars appears indented, directly below “Total Sugars.”

Changing label terms from “Sugars” to “Total Sugars” may not seem like a big change, but it may pay off big for consumers. Before any label changes can go into effect, the FDA is required to conduct research on consumer reaction to potential label changes; this research was conducted in July and August of 2014, and in February and March of 2015. IFIC also conducted research in July of 2014 on consumer interpretations of the sugars section of the newly proposed FDA Nutrition Facts label. Both the FDA and IFIC independently found that using “Total Sugars” on the label instead of “Sugars” significantly improved consumer understanding of a critical concept, that “Total Sugars” represents the entire amount of sugar in one serving of a product, and that the amount of sugar displayed on the “Added Sugars” line is included in the amount of “Total Sugars.” To help make this information easier to interpret correctly, the FDA also added the word “Includes” to the “Added Sugars” line.

Putting the Nutrition Facts Label into Practice

Some people may have difficulty interpreting the new added sugars information. Separate consumer research studies from the FDA and IFIC, which both used Nutrition Facts labels that included “Total Sugars” and “Added Sugars” information, showed that 76 and 66 percent of people, respectively, were able to correctly identify the total amount of sugar in one serving of a product. In these studies, when attempting to identify the total amount of sugar in a product, the most common mistake people made was adding the “Total Sugars” and “Added Sugars” lines together. It is expected that this concept will become better understood in time.

Like other parts of the Nutrition Facts label, added sugars information is not only presented in grams, but also as percent Daily Value (%DV). The %DV can be challenging to understand and to use, so let’s start with what the Daily Value (DV) is. The DV is the total amount of a nutrient that one should consume, or not to exceed, each day. The DV is not listed on food labels, but the %DV is. The %DV represents how much of a nutrient’s DV is found in one serving of that product. For nutrients like fiber, 100% of the DV is a recommended target to reach over the course of a day. For added sugars, 100% of the DV is a recommended maximum to stay below each day.

The DV for added sugars is 50 grams, a number derived from the 2015—2020 DGA recommendation to consume less than 10% of total calories from added sugars. Two-thousand calories is the daily amount used by the FDA to standardize the information displayed on the Nutrition Facts label. Ten percent of 2,000 calories equates to 200 calories from added sugars, or 50 grams of added sugars because each gram of sugar contains four calories. Some people need more, and others need less than 2,000 calories per day. This means that even though the recommendation to consume less than 10% of calories from added sugars remains constant, the number of grams of added sugars that satisfies this recommendation will not be the same for everyone.

It’s complicated, so a simple way to use the %DV is incorporating the “5/20 rule.” This method can help with consuming more of the nutrients that most of us don’t get enough of (calcium, fiber, iron, potassium and vitamin D) and less of those that we tend to eat too much of (added sugars, saturated fat and sodium). The “5/20 rule” states:

  • 5% DV or less per serving is considered low
  • 20% DV or more per serving is considered high

The FDA have developed numerous resources for the public, including guides for older adults, youth, parents and health educators as well as healthcare professionals to improve comprehension of the Nutrition Facts label, including %DV and sugars information.

Summing Up Sugar

Added sugars can be a part of a healthy diet, but most people consume more added sugars than is recommended and would benefit from consuming less. Using the Nutrition Facts Label can assist in making more informed choices. When using food labels, look at the entire label and consider the bigger picture. Added sugar is just one piece of the puzzle.

For a complete details of all the changes reflected in the new Nutrition Facts label, read IFIC’s article: Go Further with Food: Get to Know the New Nutrition Facts Label.

Contributions by Alyssa Pike, RD and Allison Webster, PhD, RD