Requiring U.S. food labels to clearly cite the amount of sugar that manufacturers have added to each product would greatly reduce the number of cases of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes diagnosed in the United States over the next couple of decades, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Circulation.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans would experience a higher quality of life — as well as longer lives — and the country would save billions of dollars in health care and social costs, the study adds.
The authors of the study — researchers at Tufts University and the University of Liverpool — note they are the first to estimate the potential health and economic impacts of putting an “added sugar” line on the Nutrition Facts label of all processed foods.
They say their findings underscore the need to make that change.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in 2016 that it was going to make “added sugar” a mandatory requirement on food labels. Under pressure from the food industry, however, the agency has repeatedly delayed the date by which manufacturers must comply. Implementation of the new requirement is now set for 2020 for large companies and 2021 for small ones.
The new label would list under the “Total Carbohydrate” category the amount (in grams) of sugar that has been added to a product above any naturally occurring sugar in the food. It would also show the percentage of calories that the added sugar contributes to the average American’s daily calories.
It’s currently difficult for consumers to determine how much added sugar is in a food product because sugar appears on labels under more than a dozen different names, including dextrose, maltose, sucrose and corn syrup.
As background information in the new study points out, added sugar makes up 15 percent of the average American adult’s total daily calories — much higher than the maximum of 10 percent recommended by U.S. dietary guidelines. The overconsumption of sugar is considered a major risk factor for obesity and related cardiometabolic diseases, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
The economic burden of these diseases on the U.S. economy is enormous. Obesity-related diseases currently cost the economy an estimated $1.4 trillion a year — a number that is expected to escalate in the coming years.
How the study was done
To come up with their estimates of the impact that labeling the amount of added sugar in food products would have on people’s health, the authors of the new study applied a validated mathematical model to health-related data collected from participants in the biennial National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Using that model, the researchers predicted that listing added sugar on food labels could prevent or postpone almost 1 million cases of cardiometabolic disease by 2037, including 354,400 cases of cardiovascular disease (including heart disease and stroke) and 599,300 cases of type 2 diabetes.
That number could climb to 3 million cases — 708,800 cases of cardiovascular disease and 1.2 million cases of type 2 diabetes — if, as expected, the labels force food manufacturers to lower the amount of sugar in their products in order to have their products continue to appeal to health-conscious consumers.
The researchers also estimated that the labels would save the U.S. economy $31 billion in health care costs and $61.9 billion in social costs over the next two decades. Those numbers would increase to a $57.6 billion savings in health care costs and a $113.2 billion savings in social costs if the labels led the manufacturers to cut their products’ sugar content.
“We demonstrate that the healthcare and societal savings as a result of the added sugar label significantly outweigh policy costs, even when an estimated $2.5 billion of industry reformulation costs were considered,” the researchers write.
Needed: ‘timely implementation’
The study’s results are only estimates, of course. But the findings are more likely to underestimate rather than overestimate the health and economic impacts of implementing the FDA’s added sugar labeling policy, say the researchers, because their analysis assumes that sugar consumption will trend downward during the next two decades and that the food industry will reformulate its products to contain less sugar.
Neither of those two assumptions may turn out to be true, however.
Furthermore, the study looked only at cardiometabolic health outcomes. It didn’t include the impact that consuming less sugar has on other medical conditions, such as obesity-related cancers.
The researchers urge the FDA to not delay any further in implementing the proposed change to the Nutrition Facts label on food products.
“Our investigation suggests that timely implementation of the FDA’s added sugar labeling policy would generate significant health gains and both healthcare and societal cost savings,” they conclude.
FMI: You can read the study in full on Circulation’s website. Circulation is published by the American Heart Association.