Don't Let the Sugar Label Confuse You

by David Mendosa Patient Advocate

We need to consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars.” This is a key recommendation of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the U.S. government released on January 7.

But previous versions of the guidelines didn’t set a specific goal. And the Nutrition Facts labels that we have now on all of our packaged foods are confusing because they still don’t separate added sugars from those that occur naturally.

For those of us who have prediabetes or diabetes, the added sugars are a special concern, and these new Dietary Guidelines recognize it. The guidelines include a statement that we have some evidence that indicates eating less added sugar is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

Out of Step

Yet the American Diabetes Association seems to be out of step with the current science. Until 1994 the ADA told us that we should avoid sugar. But in May of that year it published a revised position statement, "Nutrition Recommendations and Principles for People with Diabetes Mellitus," that focused instead on the total amount of carbohydrates in our diet. And the ADA currently recommends that people with diabetes don’t each much sugar -- without, however, setting a specific limit.

Likewise, the Food and Drug Administration, which is the U.S. government agency that is responsible for the Nutrition Facts labels on our food is also lagging. Currently, these labels simply list “Sugars,” but without clarifying whether the source is added sugar or naturally occurring sugars, like those in fruit or milk. Two years ago the FDA proposed adding a new line to the label that would be indented under “Sugars.” This line would list those sugars that are added during production and would appear as “Added Sugars.”

“Check the Ingredient List”

Right now the FDA suggests that we “check the ingredient list for specifics on added sugars.” But the difference between the amount of sugar listed in the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list confuses many of us.

The Nutrition Facts label includes both added sugars and those sugars that naturally occur in our foods. The ingredient list doesn’t include the naturally occurring ones. It’s a common misperception that, “if they list sugars in the Nutrition Data, they don’t have to list them in the ingredients.”

Eventually, the government will get this straightened out. But don’t count on it happening soon because even if and when the FDA finalizes its proposed label change, food producers will certainly have a few years to find out how much sugar they are adding to the stuff they make and to reprint their packaging.

Meanwhile, the best we can do when we go shopping is to double check the ingredient lists against the Nutrition Facts labels.

David Mendosa
Meet Our Writer
David Mendosa

David Mendosa was a journalist who learned in 1994 that he had type 2 diabetes, which he wrote about exclusively. He died in May 2017 after a short illness unrelated to diabetes. He wrote thousands of diabetes articles, two books about it, created one of the first diabetes websites, and published a monthly newsletter, “Diabetes Update.” His very low-carbohydrate diet, A1C level of 5.3, and BMI of 19.8 kept his diabetes in remission without any drugs until his death.