Free Minds & Free Markets

Why the FDA's Updated Nutrition Facts Label Is a Stinker

The mandatory 'added sugar' disclosure is a misleading loser.

SpamCredit: Lhe3460Last month, competitive eater Matt Stonie, who won the most recent Nathan's hot dog eating title by downing 62 hot dogs, sat down with a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Over the next seventeen minutes, Stonie ate the contents of the bowl, which held two entire boxes of the cereal, along with a gallon of milk. The 7,700-calorie meal contained more than one pound of sugar.

My first thought while watching Stonie eat the equivalent of 22 servings of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, naturally, was to wonder what, if anything, Stonie thinks of the FDA's newly updated Nutrition Facts label. What's his take on the label's larger, bolder typeface? What about the new footnote about the FDA's recommended 2,000-calorie diet? Did he consider it before he ate almost 8,000 calories of cereal and milk in one sitting? Did he consider whether his consumption patterns mesh with the new label, on which, "[b]y law, serving sizes must be based on the portion consumers actually eat." Did he ponder whether the sugar he ate was sugar or added sugar.

I'm guessing Stonie, like many Americans, didn't read or base his decision on the Nutrition Facts label at all.

The looming changes to the Nutrition Facts label include changing the typeface of the terms "calories," "servings," and "servings per container;" updating serving size requirements; and mandating food makers declare the amount of "added sugars" in a food product. By my count, there are 30 separate numbers on the updated Nutrition Facts label. That's actually an improvement, from down from 39 numbers on the existing label.

Larger food makers have two years to comply with the rules, while ones making less than $10 million each year have three years.

As President George H.W. Bush declared in signing the law that gave rise to the now-ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label in 1990, the purpose of the label is "to assist consumers in selecting a healthful diet."

In announcing the latest changes, last week, the FDA gave the Nutrition Facts label a far broader and more generalized mission: to "make it easier for consumers to make informed choices about what they're eating." Have consumers been uninformed or misinformed by the existing label?

The most common argument in favor of an "added sugar" label is tautological: it claims that the current Nutrition Facts label hides added sugar.

"The final label requires Added Sugars to be declared to help consumers know how much sugar is added to the product," the White House reveals. Well, yes, of course it does, just like the existing requirement to declare total sugars helps consumers know how much sugar is in the product.

Actor Chuck Norris agrees with the First Lady. "Current labels make it difficult—if not impossible—to measure the precise amount of sugars that are added to products," wrote Norris in a column this week applauding the new FDA rules.

Vogue also suggests the new label makes it "easier to be aware of the total grams of sugar in a food."

What's not to love? Lots, in fact. The new label does little well, and several things badly—including that it is misleading.

These concerns aren't new, either. In a 2014 column, I blasted the FDA's overreaching and foolhardy attack on added ingredients, including not just sugar but also trans fats, salt, and caffeine, referring to them collectively as "total and utter nonsense." As I wrote noted in that column, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars (like those that occur naturally in fruit) are exactly the same substance. For example, take three hypothetical foods: a glass of orange juice, a can of soda, and a sugar-glazed, fruit-filled pastry. They may have the exact same amount of total sugar. The fact the juice gets its sugar from oranges, the soda its from added cane sugar, and the pastry both from the fruit and from added sugar in the glazing tells us nothing whatsoever that pertains to nutrition.

The origins of the sugar—be they from nature (as all sugars begin) and added by man or by directly from nature, or both—tells a consumer not a single thing of import. Consumers can already identify added sugars without the recently announced changes is to simply read the FDA-mandated list of ingredients. "Reading the ingredient label on processed foods can help to identify added sugars," the USDA notes.

"Use of the term 'added sugar' is misleading," I wrote last year, "as it creates a deceptive health halo around products like orange juice and apple juice, which are high in naturally occurring sugar but contain no added sugar."

I also noted the "added sugar" label also begs the question of why the FDA would just stop at mandating added sugar on food labels, and not also require labeling that identifies added protein and added carbs, added salt, added caffeine, and added allergens like soy and dairy. In fact, just this week, the FDA announced new "voluntary" guidelines for added salt, which have faced sharp criticism. Anyone who believes a line for "added sodium" isn't in the cards in the coming years hasn't been paying attention to the way the FDA operates.

Finally, there's very real issue of whether these labels will really accomplish anything. I think not.

"The people who read labels are the people who are already watching their health and their weight," I told Reuters in 2013. Research backs me up. One-third of participants in a 2011 study claimed to look at calorie counts on Nutrition Facts labels. But even that low figure was higher than reality.

"What the eye-tracking data showed: only 9% looked at calorie count for almost all the items in the experiment," reported a Time article on the study.

Marion Nestle, who pushed the FDA to make the present changes, called the new label "a signature accomplishment of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation." While I think the general goals of Let's Move! are true, the impact of the campaign is dubious. Despite all the attention Mrs. Obama has devoted to children and obesity during her husband's presidency, overall obesity rates didn't fall. In fact, they've inched up.

All of that is to say that these misleading new rules are just another way for the federal government to expand the regulatory burden on food companies by creating rules that have little impact on obesity.

Photo Credit: Lhe3460

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    "Marion Nestle, who pushed the FDA to make the present changes, called the new label "a signature accomplishment of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation."

    'Within a generation'. Nice vague target with that 'accomplishment' you got there. In any event, wanna bet? I wager it won't and even if obesity rates drop, it'll be for some other - likely inexplicable - reason.

    People just have to pretend they're doing something I reckon.

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    As a colleague of mine likes to say about dead weight making new pointless bureaucracy at a private firm, "They do it to justify their own job."

  • The Hyperbole||

    it'll be for some other - likely inexplicable - reason.

    I for one hope it'll be due to a heretofore unheard of amount of fat shaming.

  • Microaggressor||

  • The Hyperbole||

    Exactly! Fat Fucks need to be maligned the more hatefully the better. Fucking disgusting fat fucks.

  • DiegoF||

    print "Here is a horrible problem facing society today: "; print alarming_statistic
    print "We cannot simply stand by as this happens. "

    print "Our proposed solution is quite modest; ignore the 'slippery slope' alarmists. "
    print "For the children! "

    old_alarming_statistic = alarming_statistic
    print alarming_statistic

    if alarming_statistic < old_alarming_statistic
    print "Our new law, and certainly not any other factor, has already helped so many people. "
    print "Imagine what we can do with more action; do not let special interests stop our progress. "
    print "Even with present measures, our problem remains alarmingly grave. "
    print "Clearly, more work needs to be done. "
    end loop

  • CZmacure||

    If Reason's commenting system didn't suck so hard, I'd upvote this comment.

  • W. Chipper Dove||

    So BASIC a child could realize it.

  • Captain Hindsight||

    Infinite loop warning

  • Pay up, Palin's Buttplug!||

    I think that's the point…

  • macsnafu||

    At least it doesn't use an unconditional GoTo statement!

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    Hearties for Baylen.

  • Aloysious||

    Despite all the attention Mrs. Obama has devoted to children and obesity during her husband's presidency, overall obesity rates didn't fall. In fact, they've inched up.

    To once again quote C.S. Lewis:"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies."

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    Awfully prophetic.

  • Steve G||

    My first thought while watching Stonie eat the equivalent of 22 servings of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, naturally, was... how raw was the roof of his mouth by the end, amirite? #80schild

  • Almanian's Rusty Woodchipper||

    Captain Crunch is just brutal on the top of the palate. But TOTALLY worth it...

  • Steve G||

    Gotta build a tolerance with a week of rice chex!

  • Robert||

    All this time I thought I was the only one to suffer or notice that effect. I haven't eaten breakfast cereal in decades, but I still remember that. I told Daddy (on the phone maybe), with my mouth full, "The roof of my mouth is all scratched up from eating cereal." He said, "Your mouth is scratched up from eating sewage? Why are you eating sewage?"

  • pan fried wylie||

    I'm pretty sure this effect is universal, some people just aren't bothered by it enough to notice.

  • John Pittman||

    Years of childhood pain comes flooding back.........

  • pagal||

    I don't support government-mandated labeling requirements, but this article is really dumb. Fructose and glucose are metabolized differently. Also, sugar in liquid form (sodas and juices) has a different insulin response than sugar in other forms. To pretend that every gram of sugar is identical to every other gram of sugar is silly.

  • Almanian's Rusty Woodchipper||

    YOU'RE bad

  • ||

    I suspected the cult of Lustig/Taubes would show up.

  • DiegoF||

    Even putting aside that nonsensical business about "sugar in liquid form," OP's comments have nothing to do with the point the article made on sugar, which is that the government's new distinction of between "added" and nonadded sugar is absurd.

    As for you, Mr. Wood: What the government is doing, in this case, is plenty bad. Mr. Linnekin is not saying that added sugar is not bad (it is, after all, sugar); he is saying that it does not acquire some sort of magical voodoo additional powers of badness by virtue of being "added." When the government justifies its intrusion with reasoning that is scientifically ridiculous, like salt alarmism, "thirdhand smoke," or reefer madness, it deserves to be in for extra contempt. Yes, we know they have no right to do these things in the first place. But why not ridicule them for this as well? I have never heard of such an insistence as yours.

  • greasonable||

    Fine, but this labelling rule does not do anything to highlight that difference.

  • pagal||

    Then he should have focused on that, instead of saying stupid shit like this:

    The fact the juice gets its sugar from oranges, the soda its from added cane sugar, and the pastry both from the fruit and from added sugar in the glazing tells us nothing whatsoever that pertains to nutrition.
  • bluecanarybythelightswitch||

    THANK YOU. Glad someone else pointed that out. Not all sugars are created equally, and the fact is that added sugars are typically glucose, which has its time and place. Naturally occuring sugars like fructose and lactose create a different insulin response in the body, and despite what the ignoramus DiegoF said above, the 'added' component IS relevant, because naturally occurring sugars are in a proportion to other macro and micro nutrients in the food which further affects insulin response, so when you add a shit ton extra sugar you change the proportion of nutrients being digested. Of course, the government has no business 'helping' or coercing us into making particular nutrition decisions, especially since they created the added sugar phenomenon by saying saturated fats are unhealthy (false) resulting in food producers putting more sugar to improve flavor.

  • Yas||

    Agreed. Very useful information for people who are sensitive to it. Added sugar has effects on triglycerides and let us not forget how important this will be for diabetics.

  • DiegoF||

    In addition to being rude to someone who has done you no ill, your comment: (1) Does absolutely nothing to object to the point I made above; (2) is pseudoscientific nonsense. A quick Google search for one of the many available mainstream-science layman's nutrition guides, as opposed to whatever alternative-medicine guru you are following (I have to admit I have never heard this particular foil-hat theory before) will do the trick for any curious reader. But for starters:

    (A) Added sugars are almost always either sucrose (a glucose-fructose compound) or a mixture of glucose and fructose themselves. The first is table sugar, the second "high-fructose corn syrup."

    (B) There are no magically special "naturally occurring sugars," versus non-natural. All the same stuff. All sugars occur naturally, in substantial quantities in the food you eat every day. On average, the glucose-fructose balance of fruits and vegetables is the same as that of sucrose (indeed, is sometimes sucrose itself), but there is some variation from species to species. High fructose corn syrup, too, has the same glucose-fructose balance.

    Since even before I became a part of it, I have always thought it was fascinating how the community of self-styled libertarians attracts an odd mixture of the most hard-headed rationalists and the kookiest devotees of conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, etc. For every Penn Jilette, it seems, we have an Alex Jones!

  • Robert||

    Plant roots usually store or yield sucrose, and sucrose therefore makes up a high proportion of spring sap, coming from the roots. Fruits most commonly accumulate fructose. The general sap of the body of plants has mostly glucose most of the year. Flower nectar is variable as to sugar type, but most commonly glucose. Various plants specialize in other sugars.

  • John DeWitt||

    What bluecanary is referring to, I believe, is the naturally occurring ratios of sugar to fiber. So while an apple has a high amount of sugar, it also has the fiber that reduces carbohydrate consumption and production of insulin. Added sugars (or fruit juice without any "added sugars") is missing the fiber from, resulting in overproduction of insulin.

    I do agree that this "solution" is imperfect, but being able to track added sugar is beneficial to those who care.

  • Microaggressor||

    And yet it's still meaningless, because sugar comes in so many different forms. "Added sugars are typically glucose" and what about when they're not? This is why I read the ingredients label and not the worthlessly rounded fractions of grams of macros.

    The only useful thing about the required label is the ingredients list, and that requires a bit of knowledge to use thanks to sugar having so many hidden monikers.

  • Robert||

    From what food can you take away some saturated fats and then add sugar to compensate for the difference in flavor? Sometimes you can add carbohydrates to compensate for texture, but not flavor.

  • DiegoF||

    Well, as it happens, the sugar in orange juice is about half sucrose, one-quarter glucose, and one-quarter fructose. Sucrose itself is a fructose-glucose compound, so orange juice and table sugar have pretty much exactly the same glucose-fructose balance.

    Glucose and fructose are indeed metabolized differently, but possible health effects of the difference for healthy people are still in the very early research stages (we do know, for example, that fructose does not produce the same insulin spike glucose does). Best for now to not eat too much sugar from any source, and not to eat too much in general.

    But whatever the case may be, orange juice's "naturally occuring" sugar is no different from if you took a big vat and mixed half table sugar and half high-fructose corn syrup. Mr. Linnekin did not, in fact, say any "stupid shit." The same cannot be said for many of these comments.

  • MacDaddy81||

    They may metabolize somewhat differently, but high sugars are high sugars. If not used, they turn into fat.

  • Domoromo||

    But sugar cane is glucose. Fructose is only used due to the terrible situation we have with horrid tariffs to "protect us sugar industry" making sugar so expensive. I don't know about you but when i think of where to grow sugar cane i think North America.... That's not right.
    Sugar should be practically free but we use fructose since it's cheaper though it taste worse and worse for you. Though really you're splitting hairs. It's not one is better for you as much as neither are 'good' but if someone sees 100g sugar 1g added sugar they'll think it's only the good sugar.
    And what entails added sugar. Is it processed sugar or what about concentrate. Both glucose though I bet concentrate is the way around the added sugar part.

  • DiegoF||

    You have it nearly backwards.

    Fructose per se is not a widely used sweetener in the food industry. The tariff-subsidy regime you speak of has resulted in the "unnatural" substitution of corn syrup for cane/beet sugar. Cane/beet sugar is sucrose, not glucose.

    Corn syrup, on the other hand, is glucose. But much of the corn syrup in our food supply has been further processed to turn some of its glucose into fructose--thus making it sweeter, like table sugar, while simultaneously bringing its glucose/fructose balance closer to what it is within the table sugar molecule itself. (Sucrose is actually one glucose molecule bonded to one fructose!) "High fructose corn syrup," thus, is actually not particularly high in fructose; and the evidence for it being worse for you than table sugar is not particularly good.

  • R C Dean||

    Fructose and glucose are metabolized differently. Also, sugar in liquid form (sodas and juices) has a different insulin response than sugar in other forms. To pretend that every gram of sugar is identical to every other gram of sugar is silly.

    OK, sure. But is the difference enough to matter, really? Or are the differences to the outcome, for health purposes, too marginal to bother with, especially in a label? I get that "tells us nothing whatsoever that pertains to nutrition" may be an overstatement, but would "tells us nothing material that pertains to health" be wrong?

  • bluecanarybythelightswitch||

    For most people it doesn't matter, cause they're fat fucks who don't care about their body. For people who care about diet and exercise it is relevant. Doesn't mean the gov. should do it, though.

  • Woodchiprow Wilson||

    Glucose can be metabolized by every cell in your body. Fructose gets metabolized by your liver only. That's why it's extra bad in high quantities. Your liver thinks you're a raging alcoholic, but you never even get drunk. They've found plenty of heavy juice and soda kids with the beginnings of cirrhosis.

    Other posters are right, table sugar is 50/50 of each, HFCS is 55/45 fructose. So I guess it's technically worse for you, but not functionally worse.

    Also, to the "what about fruit? It's all fructose" people: fruit comes with tons of fiber that helps you deal with the fructose load. So it's ok. Not the best thing to base a diet off of, but sooooooo much better than juice.

    Sugar is not all sugar. Writer makes himself look really stupid while making a good point we all agree with.

  • kbolino||

    Most HFCS is 42% fructose, not 55%. The latter is only common in beverages.

  • Robert||

    For a brief time after nonenzymatic glucosylation was discovered as a pathologic process in diabetes mellitus and also aging process such as cataracts, the thought was that fructose would be more healthful. Then nonenzymatic glycosylation rxns involving other sugars were discovered.

    That's often how it is. Att'n is focused in 1 place, & whatever is discovered there has more significance attached to it for a while than is, or turns out to be, justified. Like the people who think cocamidopropyl betaine is an especially deleterious surfactant in toiletries, because its irritancy and allergenicity were listed early, because it was in wide use. The same sometimes goes as well for benefits of substances, such as phytochemicals in the diet.

  • ||

    Vogue also suggests the new label makes it "easier to be aware of the total grams of sugar in a food."

    This makes my brain hurt.

    If only existing labels showed total grams of sugar...

  • Rich||

    If only people actually read the labels.

    If only people knew what a "gram" is.


    The list goes on and on.

  • Almanian's Rusty Woodchipper||

    I gram used to be, like, fifty bucks, but I haven't done drugs since the 80's, so I dunno any more.

  • SimonD||

    do you remember when a dime bag was actually $10?

  • american socialist||

    OT: Fuck Muhammad Ali. He just didn't understand the threat that the Vietcong posed to Peoria nor did he understand the wisdom of bombing desperately poor villagers because they didn't a.) want land to be owned solely by rich people and b.) didn't want to be part of America.

    What a loser.

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    Ching chang chong, right, racist?

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    Don't you have a bunch of innocent children to kill and/or starve to death?

  • Jimothy||

    This is fantastic news for apple farmers, who will see demand for their product go up. Mass food producers will drive down their "added sugar" numbers by substituting apple juice for cane or corn syrup, deluded consumers will feel good about consuming more of these goods, and politicians will rejoice in doing something that does nothing, this perpetuating the need for them to do still more.

  • Microaggressor||

    The FDA is in the pocket of Big Apple!

  • Brian||

    We need strong government regulation to allow people to make healthy choices. People used to be a lot thinner, until Reagan started dismantling all the nutritional labeling regulations in the 80s. And now, look at us. Ever been to Disney World? It's like a Golden Corral convention: less than 250 pounders not allowed.

    We need to get back to what worked: the nutritional labeling of the 1950's.

  • R C Dean||

    the nutritional labeling of the 1950's.




    Works for me.

  • ipsum||

    Complete waste of time and money. But that's what the government does best.

  • Tagore Smith||

    I'll play Devil's advocate here (and note that I don't necessarily agree with what I say when I do that, and don't in this case, but...)

    Of course there's no real difference between things like sugars that aren't added to food products, and sugars that are. But, most people aren't very good at figuring out what their macros, etc. ought to be, but might have a good intuitive idea of what they ought to be eating. Their assumptions might be derived from the pre-processed nutritional content of the food they buy, and added sugars might throw that off by a lot. So pointing out the added sugars might serve as a warning: this food is not quite what you intuitively think it is.

  • kbolino||

    So pointing out the added sugars might serve as a warning: this food is not quite what you intuitively think it is.

    How much sugar is "intuitively" in an Oreo?

    And "intuition" is a bit of a strange measure even when the food isn't so "artificial". Pre-refrigeration, it would have been "intuitive" that packaged foods had more salt and/or sugar than fresh foods. Nowadays, people seem to think that a package of fruit sitting on an unrefrigerated shelf with an expiration date 3 months from now shouldn't have "added" sugar. Well, how the hell do you think it's not moldy by now?

  • Tagore Smith||

    Well- first of all I was playing Devil's advocate, and second, I wasn't talking about Oreos. I'm not even sure what it would mean to add sugar to an Oreo- a bigger Oreo? I'm pretty sure if you're eating Oreos you're not too worried about your sugar intake, whether added or from Oreos fresh off the vine.

    That said, you might think a couple of pieces of bread are in line with how you want to eat, and lots of bread does have added sugars. The difference between bread with added sugars and bread without is actually probably significant. I still don't think requiring labeling is going to make any real difference, but....

  • kbolino||

    actually probably


    And bread is another great example of "intuition" being a poor metric. Before people thought "bread comes from the store", they would have "intuitively" known that bread made with yeast contains some sugar.

  • Tagore Smith||

    On the other hand... I tend to think that nutritional labeling is not very useful even for people who read labels religiously, and that this is especially true if their main concern is weight (or bf%, really, but for most people this is pretty much the same as weight.)

    Calories in vs calories out really is the main question, at bottom, but it's an impossible thing to know or really regulate directly. You don't know what you expend on a daily basis to within 10% (to say the least,) and you don't know what you net after digestion, etc. on a daily basis to within 10%. And since calorie counts on labels don't take things like the thermic effect of food into account they are worse than useless. Note that when you combine both uncertainties you wind up with potential weight gain that is larger than what we normally observe.

    You don't wind up weighing 300 pounds because the food industry didn't label its products properly.

  • Robert||

    If they want to "carbo-wash" their labels of "added sugars", they can add concentrated fruit or root juices, such as apple, white grape, or cane. I don't think it counts as "sugar" unless it's crystallized at some point, whether refined or brown.

  • pan fried wylie||

    how has 100% All Natural Cane Juice not already become a thing?

  • pan fried wylie||

    (Like, as a beverage, I mean)

  • Rockabilly||

    How about warnings for us sugar daddies?

  • Robert||

    Suck off, flavor.

  • Eman||

    "I also noted the "added sugar" label also begs the question of why the FDA would just stop at mandating added sugar on food labels, and not also require labeling that identifies added protein and added carbs, added salt, added caffeine..."

    in some dystopian future I could see the FDA mandating a list of every single ingredient used on every single product or something. crazy. and obviously they are accomplishing something, it's just a different thing than we're told they're supposed to accomplish. even the federal government could get around to firing someone as incompetent as the FDA appears.

  • jonthiele||

    There is method to this move.

    It is often called 'nudge' or (worse) 'behavioral economics'. Basically, the idea is to present information in a way that prompts a certain response. "Added sugar", it is reasoned, will sound worse than "total sugar" to the mother so she will avoid the product, and it is the intention of the rule makers to change what people eat. It is not their intention to make people better informed so that they might make their own decisions; it is by design to lessen decision making by individual consumers.

    Much like Obamacare, by the way, and other regulations of this administration.

  • AmyPritchard||

    Make 14500 bucks every month... Start doing online computer-based work through our website. I have been working from home for 1 years now and I love it. I don't have a boss standing over my shoulder and I make my own hours. The tips below are very informative and anyone currently working from home or planning to in the future could use this website...


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online