Proposed “Added Sugars” Label Is Misunderstood, Could Backfire

Contact Info: 

Matt Raymond (raymond@ific.org)
Laura Kubitz (kubitz@ific.org)

(Washington, D.C., June 12, 2015) — Nutrition facts labels will soon have a whole new look, but concerns are emerging about how consumers will interpret and apply them. Consumer research by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation just published in a peer-reviewed journal suggests that pitfalls might lie ahead, and that the proposed labeling could backfire.

The findings were published online June 10 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in a study titled, “Including ‘Added Sugars’ on the Nutrition Facts Panel: How Consumers Perceive the Proposed Change.”

With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set to revise the iconic Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP), the IFIC Foundation checked in with consumers to understand the potential impact of added-sugars labeling.

“A key question to answer in our consumer research was whether an ‘Added Sugars’ declaration on the NFP provides clear information that is well-understood and would be used appropriately by consumers to make informed dietary choices,” said co-author Kris Sollid, RD, IFIC Foundation Director of Nutrients Communications.

In a national online survey of American adults, consumers were shown three NFP versions of a nutritionally identical product, with the only difference being how sugars were labeled. Key findings from the research illustrate potential consumer interpretations of an “Added Sugars” line:

  • NFPs with “Added Sugars” declarations were misleading and the resulting misperception influenced purchase intent.
    • The ability for consumers to accurately identify the total amount of sugars in a product is significantly higher when an “Added Sugars” line is not presented on the NFP. No differences were observed between those who self-reported as NFP readers and those who did not.
    • Most consumers perceive that products with an “Added Sugars” declaration have a higher sugars content than is actually present.
  • Consumer understanding that the sugars in an “Added Sugars” line would be included in a “Sugars” line or “Total Sugars” line was significantly higher on NFPs with a “Total Sugars” line.
  • There is confusion among consumers regarding what added sugars are. Even those who self-reported as NFP readers appear perplexed about “Added Sugars” terminology.

Consumers are inundated with nutrition information from a variety of sources, and the opportunity for misinformation to spread is more prevalent than ever, particularly with carbohydrates and sugars.

“Consumer understanding of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts Panel is limited,” said co-author Marianne Smith Edge, RD, LD, FADA, IFIC and IFIC Foundation Senior Vice President of Nutrition and Food Safety. “Our research demonstrates the need for increased consumer education on food label comprehension and application, regardless of whether or not an ‘Added Sugars’ line appears on the revised NFP. Information alone does not necessarily result in true learning.”

The open access article can be accessed here via the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Full study results can be viewed on the IFIC Foundation website.

In addition to Smith Edge and Sollid, the other authors of the study were Idamarie Laquatra, PhD, RD, LDN, Assistant Professor, Department of Food and Nutrition, Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Jason Pelzel, MPH, RD, Senior Account Executive, FoodMinds, LLC (at the time of the study, he was Manager, Health and Wellness at IFIC Foundation); and John Turner, MAJC, President, Turner Research Network.

# # #

The International Food Information Council Foundation is dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, food safety and nutrition for the public good. The IFIC Foundation is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. Visit http://www.foodinsight.org