FDA makes a muddle of nutrition labels

A young girl drinks a bottle of Pepsi in Illinois July 2. Soft drinks, like Pepsi, are major sources of empty calories and contain a lot of added sugar.
A young girl drinks a bottle of Pepsi in Illinois July 2. Soft drinks, like Pepsi, are major sources of empty calories and contain a lot of added sugar. BLOOMBERG

Since 1993, most packaged food sold in the U.S. has been required to include a Nutrition Facts label that lists the amount of fat, cholesterol, sodium, protein, carbohydrates, fiber and sugar in a serving, and includes recommended daily intakes.

During that same period, Americans’ diets have gotten worse, their waistlines have expanded and public-health problems related to poor nutrition have grown. I’m not going to blame the Food and Drug Administration’s nutrition-labeling rules. But they don’t seem to have helped a lot, either.

Now the FDA is overhauling the Nutrition Facts label. Last year it proposed several changes to the look and content, among them a reality check on serving sizes and a disclosure of how much sugar has been added to a product. On Friday it added another wrinkle – foodmakers will have to report the percentage of the recommended daily intake of added sugar that’s contained in a serving.

Paying more attention to sugar makes sense. A growing body of research shows that it is the nation’s public health enemy No. 1. But the way the FDA is going about it is weird and confusing.

The agency is targeting only added sugar. But sugar is sugar – the kind that occurs naturally in orange juice isn’t intrinsically healthier than sugar added to a soft drink.

The reason for the focus on added sugar becomes a little clearer when one peruses the 571-page Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

There is much discussion in this advisory report of “empty calories” – calories that come from foods that don’t provide much else in the way of nutrition. Soft drinks and sweets are major sources of empty calories, and they have lots of added sugar. Therefore added sugars have become a major target of public-health research and advocacy. Of the studies cited on sugar’s dangers, most measured added sugar and not overall sugar consumption.

In context, this makes sense. Fresh fruit and fruit juice may contain lots of natural sugar, but they have other nutrients too and comprise a small share of Americans’ overall caloric intake. So why focus a lot of attention on them?

When it comes to communicating nutritional information to the public, though, the emphasis on added sugars seems less than helpful. A study to be published soon in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that consumers had more trouble judging products’ sugar content when the added sugar information was included.

Including the percentage of recommended daily intake of added sugar seems to be an attempt to make things a little clearer. But the idea of a daily recommended intake of added sugar is itself confusing. It makes no sense that the daily sugar limit apply only to added sweeteners. Drinking 10 big glasses of orange juice a day is going to overload you with sugar, too.

I think what has happened here is that the FDA has allowed itself to be guided by what nutrition experts are talking about rather than what will actually help consumers make better decisions. After my experience with breakfast cereal labels, I’d be all for having the Nutrition Facts box tell people what percentage of a product’s weight is accounted for by sugar.

It might even be a good idea to require that this percentage be disclosed on the front of the package. Wouldn’t it be fun if every box of Honey Nut Cheerios came with “THIS PRODUCT IS 32 PERCENT SUGAR” emblazoned on it? That’s what I’d call a nutrition fact. This added sugar stuff is more of a nutrition muddle.

Justin Fox is a business columnist for Bloomberg View.