By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
The FDA released its final rule to revise the Nutrition Facts panel on May 20th to some serious public health pomp. After years of UCS involvement via comments, testimony, reports, and fact sheets as well as activist and Science Network engagement, we are thrilled about the outcome of added sugar transparency on food labels. The agency’s rule reflects mounting scientific evidence about the role of added sugar in disease outcomes and came out despite strong opposition from the food and beverage industries.
I was curious about what UCS parents of young children had to say about the new rule, particularly the “added sugars” information, so I asked a few of my ‘concerned parent’ colleagues about FDA’s recent action and what it’s like navigating grocery store aisles with children’s health in mind. Juan Declet-Barreto is a Kendall Science Fellow for the Climate & Energy program and the Center for Science and Democracy, Gretchen Goldman is a lead analyst with the Center for Science and Democracy and Jenn Yates is the manager of campaigns and advocacy with the Food & Environment Program. All three of them pay attention to the Nutrition Facts label when comparing products, especially when shopping for their kids. See what they have to say below.
How many children do you have? What are their ages?
JD: One three-year old.
JY: Two boys—3½ years and four months.
GG: One six-month-old.
How will the added sugar line impact your grocery store experience?
JD: Everything else being equal, I will probably choose the product with the lowest added sugar value.
JY: My husband and I try to buy foods in their most whole, unprocessed form possible and cook from scratch. But sometimes I’m looking for a pre-made food, like jam, and need to consult the Nutrition Facts label. Since watching the movie Fed Up, I now immediately look for the amount of sugar in packaged food. Lots of stuff has gone back on the shelf for being too high in sugar. Recently I accidentally bought a large tub of vanilla yogurt instead of plain and could not believe the difference in the sugar content when I looked at them side by side in my fridge. Plain yogurt has naturally occurring sugar, but all that extra added sugar is so unnecessary. We add our own fresh or frozen berries and this has been a staple breakfast item since my older son first started solid foods.
GG: I think the new label will be a roadmap for my grocery store purchases. I’m really looking forward to being able to tell how much sugar has been added to foods. Being able to distinguish that excess sugar from sugars naturally present in foods will allow me to make better choices about food for my family. I’m starting solids with my baby this week so now I’ll have to start looking at the labels on all of his food!
How do you think the added sugar label will help your shopping experience once it’s implemented? How will it be different from your mom’s shopping experience, for example?
GG: When my mom was shopping for us, there was less information about how bad sugar was for our health. Food companies made sure of it. All the health focus was wrongly placed on avoiding fat in foods. As a child I wasn’t told to avoid sugar, but luckily I have been able to change my habits as an adult. Now that I’ll be armed with more information about the sugar content in foods and the importance of avoiding excessive sugar, I’m hoping that my child can grow up in a healthier food environment.
How do you feel about current added sugar amounts in foods you buy for your children? Is it relatively easy or difficult finding low sugar foods in nearby stores?
JD: It’s easier in high-end shops, but as we sometimes want produce, spices, or other products from Latin America, we go to other supermarkets/bodegas (that primarily serve ethnic diasporas/lower income populations). These supermarkets definitely have less variety in the selection of say, yogurt, and it’s almost always the high-sugary kind with Dora the Explorer’s face on it.
JY: My husband and I made everything for my first kid when he started solids, so I didn’t have to worry about added sugar. (Sidenote: It’s surprisingly simple to just steam everyday vegetables to get them soft enough for babies to eat.) I wouldn’t say it’s hard to find low-sugar foods—we mostly stick to the edges of the grocery store where the whole foods are kept and cook with those. Better to cut back on added sugar lurking in everyday food items and enjoy an occasional sugary treat intentionally.
Have you noticed any egregious marketing of sugary foods to your kids (across all media)?
JD: I see it mostly at the stores, as we don’t habitually watch TV. The marketing I am most familiar with basically works by putting cartoon characters on any product. In the run up to the new Star Wars film a few months ago, I noticed packaging for everything to have been changed to have The Force Awakens logos, having even seen a bag of apples labeled as such, which my daughter interpreted as being “Star Wars apples.” I guess Star Wars apples are not so bad, but the plethora of sugary food marketed to children is astonishing.
JY: Not yet. But we are in the position to subscribe to resources like TiVo and Netflix that allow us to control the media our kids are exposed to without all the commercials. The candy displays in checkout lines have caught my toddler’s attention on occasion, but now I try to keep him distracted when we get to that point.
GG: I think the sugary food marketing will be difficult to avoid as my child gets older. Everything from TV commercials, to toys, to advertising on food packages in the grocery store means that my child will certainly be exposed to ads for sugary food even if I don’t purchase it. I’ll try to make sure he is introduced to all kinds of healthy food and we make sugary foods more of a special treat than a regular feature at meals.
How do you see transparency on food labels fitting into UCS’ call for a National Food Policy?
JY: Diet-related diseases, agriculture-related pollution, worker injustice, and racial inequity are all signs that our nation’s food system is broken, largely as a result of decades of misguided food policies. Today, consumers are trying to regain control over the food they eat and feed to their families. The addition of the added sugar line is a welcome step in the right direction to providing consumers with more information to make more healthful choices. But much more is needed to reform our nation’s food and agriculture policies. We are calling on the next president to take bold steps to create a food system that prioritizes healthy food, environmental sustainability, economic opportunity, and racial equity.
While the added sugar label is a huge victory for public health advocates, there is still more work to be done to protect our youngest consumers from excessive sugar consumption and the health risks that come with it. Stay tuned to UCS for an upcoming report on added sugar in baby and toddler foods that we’ll be releasing this fall.