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New food labels to emphasize calories, amount of ‘added sugar’

The FDA rolled out new rules for nutrition labels on packaged foods and drinks Friday, designed to highlight the amount of “added sugar” and calories in a given product. The measures, which take effect this summer, are part of a new effort to combat obesity and diabetes. William Brangham talks to Allison Aubrey of NPR for more on what the changes represent and whether they will make a difference.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The labels on the food we buy will be getting a new look. The Food and Drug Administration rolled out rules today with a greater emphasis on displaying clearly how much added sugar is in the foods we eat.

    Here's William Brangham.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The changes to these food labels won't go into effect until later this summer, but here's what you will see when you go to the store.

    On the left is the label we all see today. On the right is the new one. The first thing that jumps out is that the calories are going to be displayed much more prominently. But the bigger change is further down. A new line is being added showing how many grams of added sugars have been put into the food beyond what was there already.

    And the label will also tell you the percentage of the recommended daily amount of sugar that is taken up with these added sugars.

    So what does this all mean and will it make any difference?

    Allison Aubrey of National Public Radio is here to help us sort it out.

    Welcome, Allison.

  • ALLISON AUBREY, NPR:

    Hi, William. Good to be here.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Thanks.

    I have heard these rules described as radical and wrongheaded by some people and as a huge leap forward for the positive by others. As a reporter who has covered a lot of this, where do you come down on that?

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    I wouldn't say this is radical. I would say that this reflects the evolved science, that this is incredibly well-grounded in science. It's very clear now, many studies showing that excess sugar leads to not only weight gain, but also higher risk of heart disease.

    I would say the only thing that is surprising here is that the food and beverage industry really didn't get its way. Public health won out.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That's not a terribly common thing these days.

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    Not at all. Not at all.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, what is the FDA hoping for here? Are they trying to create some sense of sticker shock, that people will go into the store, pull some product off the shelf and say, whoa, I didn't realize there was that much added sugar, and then now maybe make a different choice? Is that goal here?

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    You know, maybe sticker shock in the beginning, but here's what I think is at play.

    I think the label is a lot simpler. Right? So, gone are all these recommendations about how much Vitamin A and Vitamin C you're getting in the product. What's really amplified, as we just saw on the label you pointed out, are calories. Calories are still a big deal. It's not a perfect way to figure out what to eat, but it's a very clear and easy way to figure out how much you're getting. And calories still matter.

    The other thing, as you pointed out, the sugar thing is just absolutely huge. And the added sugar thing is really important. Let me just give you an example.

    So, if you were to take a 20-ounce sugary soda, that has 65 grams of sugar. That's 16 teaspoons of sugar.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Wow.

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    Now you're going to see that on the label.

    What you're also going to see is, it's going to say, this product contains 130 percent of the sugar you're supposed to be eating in a day. In other words, this is more sugar than you're supposed to be eating in a day. That's really what they're trying to communicate here.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, that is sticker shock.

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    It will be at first for many people, because I think people are largely unaware.

    Look, nobody's taking their coffee cup and putting 12 teaspoons of sugar in it. But where we're getting a lot of the sugar is the added sugar that is hidden in foods, so, yogurts, oatmeal, cereals, all kinds of processed foods, lots and lots of hidden sugars. And this is just going to make it easier to see how much is there.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    What does science tell us about what changes people's behaviors? I'm just curious, do you think this is actually going to work to steer people to healthier choices?

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    Well, I think the very first thing you have to do to change behavior is to give people good information, right? So, that's the number one step.

    And that's really the goal here. I mean, 20 years ago, people weren't really reading these food labels. The USDA has data showing that a lot of people, an increased number, a significant number of people are now reading the food labels.

    So, the idea is better information, that's at least the first step to behavior change. And then you need the people around you to support you. I think that also gets into the role of powerful people promoting this. Of course, the first lady has been talking about this nonstop during her years in the White House, and that has made a big difference.

    She has really used her platform and really used her megaphone to raise awareness about these issues and bring attention to them.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The grocery industry somewhat made its peace with this, but the sugar industry, as you might imagine, has not.

    They said that the FDA is — quote — "setting a precedent that is not grounded in science."

    What is the industry's beef with this, so to speak?

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    Yes, I should point out by saying, like, almost every nutrition scientist would disagree with that fact.

    And the bottom line is that they're already making changes. The food industry has seen the writing on the wall for a while. I mean, the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association for years now has been saying we need to cut back on sugar. Only recently did we work this into the dietary guidelines.

    The writing has been on the wall. The industry is already making changes. You will see yogurts frequently now in the grocery store, not just the premium and high-end brands, but the everyday brands saying this product has 25 percent less sugar now. So the industry knows how to adapt, and, ultimately, they will.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, Allison Aubrey of National Public Radio, thank you very much.

  • ALLISON AUBREY:

    Thanks, William. Great to be here.

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