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A new study published in the American Heart Association’s academic journal, Circulation, estimates that the “added sugar” labeling requirements proposed by the Food and Drug Administration could lead to meaningful health gains for U.S. citizens, along with significant cost savings for the healthcare system. The FDA’s mandatory labeling rules for added sugars was first announced back in 2016 as part of a broader overhaul of the Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods and beverages.
The update is intended to help consumers make informed decisions about their purchases by requiring companies to be more transparent about the nutritional value of their products, per the FDA. Food and beverage manufacturers with annual sales of $10 million or more must implement the new label by Jan. 1, 2020, while smaller companies have been given until 2021 to comply with the update.
Health professionals have long understood that excessive sugar consumption is a significant risk factor for the development of cardiovascular conditions, including coronary heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the risk of heart disease mortality is directly correlated to the percentage of sugar in an individual’s diet, regardless of age, sex, or levels of physical activity. Participants whose sugar consumption accounted for 25% or more of their overall daily caloric intake were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than those whose diets consisted of less than 10% added sugar. The study also found that sweetened beverages were the largest sources of added sugar in the average American’s diet, though food items like cookies, pastries, ice cream and candy were also notable sources.
Researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, along with several associates from the University of Liverpool, estimate that the FDA’s added sugar-labeling rules could prevent or delay close to 1 million cases of heart disease and diabetes over the next 20 years. Diving deeper into the study’s specific findings, the updated labeling rules could:
Additionally, if the labeling guidelines motivate food and beverage manufacturers to reduce the added sugar content of their products, the researchers’ estimates could rise as high as 3 million positive health outcomes. The study was conducted using a validated microsimulation model, which analyzed the distributional and aggregated effects of the proposed labeling guidelines in extensive detail. Researchers created their model using data from the two most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, along with other relevant scientific sources.
“Informing consumers about what is in their sugary drinks, cakes, and sweets will help them decide what they want to eat for their health now and later,” said Martin O’Flaherty, co-author of the study and professor in epidemiology at the University of Liverpool. “Full implementation of the label before 2021 could help maximize health and economic gains.”
The possible health benefits of the FDA’s added sugar policy is predicated on changes to consumer behavior that may result from the increased visibility of dietary information. Many health experts believe that high sugar intake stems from a lack of food and beverage product transparency, as shoppers are unaware of the massive volume of added sugar used in the manufacturing of these goods. A mid-April article from Reuters pointed out that the study had to make several assumptions about how the labeling update would impact sugar consumption, reporting that researchers estimated that consumers would decrease added sugar intake by 6.8% because of the FDA’s policy. If the new labeling rules succeed in promoting healthier purchasing habits, the cost of managing cardiovascular conditions could be significantly reduced.
Food and beverage labels provide a lot of useful information that consumers rely on to mediate their diets and nutrition. According to the latest Health and Diet Survey from the FDA, more than half of all U.S. adults read the nutrition facts label “always” or “most of the time” before purchasing a product, suggesting that consumers are interested in making healthy buying decisions. In fact, only 18% of survey respondents said they did not consider food labels important, which demonstrates the value of transparent labeling practices for food and beverage manufacturers.
New government policies and regulations are under near-constant development, often driven by public concern about the nutritional value of the products they buy. Keeping pace with consumer demands requires careful attention to behavioral trends and a good deal of operational flexibility, as manufacturers rely on high-performance label printers to remain compliant and to align their brand with consumers’ interest in social responsibility.