Study debunks manufacturer fears labeling added sugar would confuse consumers

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Study debunks fears added sugar on Nutrition Facts confuses consumers
Most Americans believe knowing how much added sugar is in a food would be helpful, according to a recent study that contradicts food manufacturers’ concerns that a proposal to differentiate added and naturally occurring sugar on the Nutrition Facts label would confuse consumers. 

Sixty-three percent of 500 U.S. adults who participated in a voluntary online survey in July said knowing how much added sugar was in a food product would be helpful for tracking and reducing their sugar intake, managing diabetes and for other health reasons, according to a study​ published in the December issue of the journal Obesity.

Comparatively, only 18% of survey respondents thought adding the information to Nutrition Facts panels as proposed by FDA last March would be confusing.

The vast majority of consumers who said the additional information would be more confusing than helpful “gave reasons that suggest they were indifferent to the information,”​ and likely do not currently read Nutrition Facts labels, conclude researchers Ted Kyle, founder of ConsciencHealth, and Diana Thomas, an associate professor at the Center for Quantitative Obesity Research at Montclair State University.

“Out of the 111 respondents who rated the labeling as confusing, only three gave reasons that spoke of confusion,”​ while the vast majority gave reasons that were variations of “I don’t know,” ​and “I don’t care,”​ the researchers said.

They explain: “The literature on label use and comprehension … tells us that roughly 25% of consumers self-report that they do not read nutrition labels. Since 18% of the respondents in our survey reported finding information on added sugar to be more confusing than helpful, one might suspect that many of these respondents do not read nutrition labels.”

The researchers came to these conclusions after showing the survey participants an example of the proposed new food label from FDA which includes added sugar as a subset of all sugar on the Nutrition Facts label. They then asked them on a five-point scale if the label information was “very confusion” ​or “very helpful,”​ and why.

FDA proposes labeling will reduce intake

FDA suggested declaring added sugar on food labels to “help individuals identify foods that are nutrient-dense within calorie limits and in reducing excess discretionary calorie intake from added sugar,” ​according to the proposed rule​.

The recommendation quickly became one of the most contested elements of the vast food labeling overhaul proposed by the agency with the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association and hundreds of dietitians who support it facing off against the American Bakers Association, the Sugar Association, cranberry giant Ocean Spray and Kellogg which oppose it.

Reasons for the change mirror those listed in the study, including Americans consume more sugar than recommended and listing added sugar would help reduce overall consumption. (Read more about the debate HERE​.)

Reasons against including added sugar include fears that consumers would be confused and erroneously thing that added sugars were different or more unhealthy than naturally occurring sugar even though both impact the body the same way.

Kellogg also said including added sugar on the label made it more difficult for consumers to identify the total amount of sugar in a product and therefore making it more difficult to make accurate decisions about a food’s health value. (Read more about the food giant’s argument HERE​.)

The current survey published in Obesity was conducted in reaction to this debate, the authors said. And, they concluded, the pros outweigh the cons for including added sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel. 

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