As a pediatrician who takes care of children suffering from the metabolic harms of excessive sugar consumption, I was so happy to hear that the FDA has finalized its new Nutrition Facts label. Added sugars will now be clearly marked.
This graphic (click on it for a larger view) is a great summary of all changes we should start seeing in the next couple of years. A previous blog reviewed all of the key changes, but today, I wanted to highlight key points. These are reminders that we still have to be vigilant when it comes to reading labels, particularly when it pertains to sugar content.
Free versus added sugar
Even though the new label clearly identifies when sugar has been added to packaged food, we still need to keep track of “free” sugar intake. This is sugar that has been removed or “freed” from its original source.
For instance, when sugar is found in nature, it’s usually in small quantities, often in combination with fiber, and this protects us from metabolic harm. For example, an average orange contains about 9 grams of sugar and at least 4 grams of fiber, while a typical serving of orange juice contains five times the sugar with none of the fiber!
So while sugar in whole fruit or milk doesn’t do us harm, sugar in juice is considered free sugar, although it may not have necessarily been “added” in. When calculating our sugar intake, we need to include both added as well as free sugars in our diet. And we need to try to keep the total to a minimum, which leads me to my second point.
Sugar limits are still set relatively high
The FDA’s label uses percentage limits as advised by the USDA’s guidelines, which were published earlier this year. As I had alluded to in a previous blog, the 10 percent limit for added sugar intake is still double that which is suggested by both the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization.
Also, the FDA’s label is based on the average adult diet of 2,000 calories per day. Keep in mind that for children, maximum sugar intake should be about half of this. Also remember that these labels set upper limits of intake. It would be even better to consume as little added sugar as possible—zero grams would be ideal! In other words, save the sugar for special treats on special occasions! Here are the recommendations I use:
Foods without labels are even healthier!
While the new labels will help us make healthier nutrition choices when buying packaged foods, remember that the healthiest foods are those that come without packaging and labels. While shopping for food, shop the perimeter of grocery stores, where you’ll find the fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy. Remember that roughly 90 percent of added sugar intake comes from ultra-processed foods, those found usually in the grocery store aisles.
I like the saying that “when a food has a label, consider it a warning label” and recommend that whenever possible, just “eat real food.”
If you have questions about your child’s diet and nutrition, talk to your pediatrician. You can find a Swedish pediatrician here. Call 1-800-793-3474 to schedule an appointment.