Proposed nutrition labels could highlight added sugars

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Photo courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administrations

By: Mitch Ryals

Columbia, Mo. — Nutrition labels might get a makeover in the next year.

A recent proposal by the Obama administration would require nutrition labels to highlight calories and added sugars. Eating too much added sugar can contribute to chronic diseases such as obesity, says Donna Mehrle, a registered dietician and an extension associate of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri. About 36 percent adults and almost 17 percent of youth were obese in 2009-2010 according to data from the Center for Disease Control.

“We do not need to have added sugars in our diets,” Mehrle says. “There is no nutritional value to added sugars other than calories.”

So what exactly are added sugars and why should we pay special attention to how much we eat?

Added sugars, as opposed to natural sugars, are added to foods to make them sweeter. Although added sugar might come from real food (like beets, which produce sucrose), it’s extracted, refined and added to other foods. White table sugar and high fructose corn syrup are examples of added sugars.

Sugar occurs naturally in fruit, dairy and other foods. Fructose is the sugar commonly found in fruit, and lactose is the sugar found in milk.

The body can’t tell the difference between added sugars, such as high fructose corn syrup, used to sweeten most soft drinks, and natural sugars, such as fructose. Once in the body all sugars are broken down into the simplest form, glucose. Glucose is then distributed to muscles, kidneys, the heart and the brain through blood. If glucose is not used, it’s stored as glycogen. If temporary glycogen storage is full, excess glucose is stored as fat.

The problem with added sugars, however, is that they’re not accompanied by nutrients and fiber like natural sugar is. That’s why added sugars are referred to as empty calories. They don’t provide the body with any nutrition. And weight gain can be a result of a diet high in empty calories, especially if the individual isn’t physically active enough to use all the calories he or she eats.

“Added sugar itself is not bad for most people. It’s the quantity that we as Americans are consuming that causes health issues,” Mehrle says. “Too much added sugar decreases the amount of nutrients that come with the food item.”

The new nutrition label designs are intended to help people realize what’s going into their bodies and how much they’re putting into their bodies, which is a good first step. But “we can only address health concerns if we have the right information, know how to use it and actively make decisions based on that knowledge,” Mehrle says.

For dietary guidelines and more information about sugar and other foods, visit or this helpful fact sheet about sugar.

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