Better Labels, Better Food


By Jill Richardson



Food labels are changing.

In the past, you could only see how much total sugar was in your food. That included sugars naturally occurring in healthy, whole foods — like lactose in milk — alongside extra sugars like sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, which aren’t so healthy.

But the Food and Drug Administration just announced that in the near future, labels will specify the amount of added sugars in packaged products. That makes it easier to spot the sugars you should limit in your diet.

Will this change America’s eating habits and health for the better? I hope so.

But it might not.

The new labels could benefit consumers in two ways. First, and perhaps most obviously, health-conscious eaters may read the labels and select healthier food choices. That would be welcome.

But there’s another way the new labels might help. Instead of clueing shoppers in to how sugar-laden some of their favorite products are, manufacturers may actually reformulate foods to remove some of that sugar. That would be ideal.

Indeed, it would benefit all eaters, regardless of whether they read labels.

But there are other options.

Food manufacturers could replace sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, and other unhealthy sweeteners with other artificial sweeteners or sweet, refined products that don’t count as “added sugars” but may not be any better for you.

Some manufacturers of “healthy” junk food already do this. Have you ever seen cake that claims it’s sugar-free and “fruit juice sweetened”?

Sure, if you boil fruit juice down enough, it will eventually become concentrated enough to sweeten a slice of cake. To your body, though, that’s still sugar — even if it originated from fruit juice.

It appears the government is hip to this possibility.

Regulators are defining “added sugars” to include a long list of sweeteners, including obvious ones like brown sugar, honey, and molasses, as well as less obvious ones like “fruit juice concentrates.” But you can be sure manufacturers will be searching for another workaround.

Or here’s another possibility: They can reduce serving sizes.

If one serving of a product contains 20 grams of added sugars, that might raise some eyebrows among health-conscious shoppers. But what if the manufacturer cuts the “serving size” in half? Now a serving only contains 10 grams of added sugars — which looks much better.

Only, nobody actually eats just one of the new miniature servings.

Granola is the poster child for this. Check out the nutrition labels for granola next time you’re in the store. The sugars listed may be in the single digits, but the serving sizes are often as small as half a cup or three-quarters of a cup. Who eats only half a cup of granola?

Fortunately, the new labels are supposed to use sizes that reflect

In short, the new labels represent an opportunity for our country. We can reform our eating habits. Food manufacturers can reduce the amount of added sugars in our food, and overnight Americans will eat less sugar even if they keep their diets exactly the same.

Or, we can just keep everything the same, and continue the cat and mouse game between nutrition advocates and the government and food manufacturers like we always do.

Let’s use this opportunity to make a change.

By Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.

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