Would sugar by any other name taste as sweet (and be just as bad for you)? Yes, the answer is yes.
It's the oldest trick in the food marketing handbook: Make people feel like they're choosing something good (or at least convince them it's not bad), and we'll eat much more of it. In the past companies have used some sneaky methods to do this. Thankfully, the FDA is on to their nonsense, and its new food label regulations should help us make better decisions.
One popular way to convince consumers the food is healthier than it is is to break up sugar, listing it by different names in the ingredient list, so it looks like there is less of it. There are over 61 different names for the sweet stuff, and by separating them out, food manufacturers can pretend that the first 10 ingredients aren't all added sweeteners. After all, doesn't a product made with "agave nectar, cane juice, caramel, rice syrup and fruit juice concentrates" sound delightful and even downright healthy? In reality, the label should just read "sugar, sugar, sugar, sugar, and more sugar."
Another technique is to mess with the serving sizes, making one package more than a single serving. For instance, a personal Tostino's pizza is actually two servings and one bottle of Coke actually contains 2-1/2 servings. But have you ever seen anyone ever eat less than the whole mini-pizza or take the time to measure out more-than-a-third but less-than-a-half of a bottle of soda? What kind of math madness is this?
But this trickery stops now. The Food and Drug Administration has just issued its new guidelines for nutrition labels, and these two issues were the first things it fixed. First of all, manufacturers will now be required to list how many grams of added sugars (total) a product has and what the percent daily value (%DV) is. (The Sugar Association issued an unintentionally hilarious response saying they were "disappointed" and that "there is no scientific justification" for saying sugar is bad for people. Cough, cough.)
In addition, they're requiring that serving sizes more closely reflect the amounts of food that people currently eat and that that be reflected in the calorie count. For example, here's what that Coke label would like under the new guidelines in regards to calories and serving sizes:
Larger packages will include a dual-column label to show the differences in nutrition between eating one serving and eating the whole box of pizza.
The new labels are also dropping the percent daily value for vitamins A and C, which is good because almost no one is short on those vitamins anyhow, and all it does is give junk food a "health halo." (See: "Juice" products that contain no actual juice but declare "200% daily requirement of vitamin C!") And the FDA is removing the percentage of total fat as well, as it doesn't help people differentiate between good and bad fats.
Manufacturers will have until 2018 to comply with the new rules. But while the new guidelines are most definitely an improvement, the real question now is, will it help anything? Can a nutrition label save us from ourselves?
“There is simply no evidence that consumers will actually change their purchasing behavior based on the new nutrition label,” Sherzod Abdukadirov, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said in a statement. “Most research shows that consumers largely ignore the nutrition label.”
And I can say from sad, personal experience that he's probably right. I already know my favorite ice cream is loaded with added sugars, no matter what the label says or doesn't say — and I still eat it. #sorrynotsorry
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