From Our 2010 Archives

Proposed Nutrition Labels May Exclude Sugar

New Front-of-Box Rating System Highlights Calories, Fat, and Salt

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 13, 2010 -- A proposed "front of the box" nutrition labeling system for packaged foods will likely include information on calories, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium content, but not added sugar.

In a report released today, a committee formed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that while added sugar clearly has an impact on health, there is insufficient evidence that the impact is independent of the calories it adds to the diet.

The IOM will not make formal recommendations on labeling to government officials until its next report is published, following its review of research exploring how consumers use different types of nutritional information on packaged foods.

It will then be up to the FDA to decide whether to adopt the proposed labeling system and to determine what other front-of-package nutrition claims manufacturers can make.

Nutrition experts who served on the IOM committee presented their findings at a Wednesday morning news conference.

They said calories, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium were the four items of greatest concern because they are routinely overeaten and are strongly associated with diet-related diseases like obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers.

The committee review included 20 nutritional rating systems that have been used in the U.S. and in Europe.

Another reason added sugar might not be included in the IOM committee's final recommendations is that it is difficult to distinguish between these sugars in processed foods and sugars that occur naturally in foods like raisins, said committee member Mary T. Story, PhD.

Story is a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis.

"Without an approved analytic method to make the distinction between total sugar and added sugar, it is really impossible right now to verify the amount of sugar added to food products," she said.

The IOM panel did recommend exploring whether added sugar content can or should be included in the existing Nutrition Facts guidelines that appear on food packaging. Those guidelines include only a product's total per serving sugar content.

In response to the report, the consumer nutrition advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said a uniform front-of-package food labeling system could help improve health in the U.S.

But the group called on the IOM to include added sugar in its final labeling recommendations for at least some foods.

CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson tells WebMD that consumers might get the idea that sugary soft drinks are a good food choice under the proposed labeling system because they contain no fat and little sodium.

Jacobson also called on the FDA to ban partially hydrogenated oils.

"That would get rid of trans fats so they wouldn't have to list them," he says.

The report was sponsored by the CDC and the FDA. A follow up report is expected to include the IOM committee's assessment of the pros and cons of having a single, federally regulated front-of-package nutrition guide.

The group hopes to avoid some of the problems experienced with earlier food industry and government nutrition labeling systems like the much maligned Smart Choices program.

The program was introduced in August 2009 and was voluntarily halted just a few months later by industry promoters at the urging of the FDA.

While the simple green check on the front labels of products was supposed to alert consumers that a product was a healthy choice, Jacobson says the program had major flaws such as allowing exemptions for sugar in breakfast cereals and not requiring whole grain in products containing grain.

Nutritionists were quick to criticize the program when the green check started showing up on products like Kellogg's Froot Loops.

SOURCES: IOM: "'Front of Package' Rating Systems and Symbols."Mary T. Story, PhD, RD, professor of epidemiology and community health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.Michael F. Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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