Public Health

Why added-sugar nutrition labeling could save lives, money

What’s the news: Revised nutrition labels that call out a food product’s added sugar content should create enormous benefits to the nation’s health and economy. These include preventing or postponing an estimated 354,000 cases of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and almost 600,000 cases of diabetes resulting in $31 billion in health care savings over 20 years, according to Tufts University researchers.

These benefits could increase even more if the food industry responds by lowering the sugar content in their products.

Manufacturers with more than $10 million in annual sales must begin using the revised label by Jan. 1, 2020. Smaller companies have until Jan. 1, 2121. The Food and Drug Administration reports that some have already started using the new Nutrition Facts label.

“Food labeling supports informed consumer choice, and can effectively change consumer behavior and stimulate industry reformulation,” the researchers wrote in “Cost-Effectiveness of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Added-Sugar Labeling Policy for Improving Diet and Health,” a study published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugars in the American diet. The report notes that 52,000 deaths each year are linked to consuming these drinks.

Why it matters to patients and physicians: The researchers calculated that the label change would prevent or postpone 27,830 CVD deaths and 16,700 type 2 diabetes-related deaths. A positive industry response could result in numbers twice as large.

While experts may debate how closely the numbers projected over a 20-year simulated period (2018-2037) will play out as predicted, a consensus appears to be that the study has value—but just printing the new information may not be enough to produce the results the researchers project.

“Overall, I think it’s an important study,” Rekha Kumar, MD, an endocrinologist and the American Board of Obesity Medicine’s medical director, told Reuters. “What I think is the biggest assumption is that people will know how to read the food labels and will actually read them.”

Physicians will need to guide patients on using the new information.

“This paper demonstrates the potential benefits of a policy that draws attention to added sugars in people's diets,” said Kate Kirley, MD, a family physician and director of chronic disease prevention at the AMA. “Physicians should be aware that many of their patients consume excessive calories in the form of added sugars, which can have significant negative health consequences including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Added sugars have no nutritional value, and many patients would benefit from decreasing their consumption of added sugars.”

What’s next: “When the new Nutrition Facts label is fully implemented in 2020, physicians can remind their patients that the label is a useful tool to guide selection of healthier foods with less added sugar,” Dr. Kirley said.

The AMA has resources to educate patients on the art and science of Nutrition Facts label reading.

The AMA Ed Hub™—your center for personalized learning from sources you trust—offers CME on a broad range of topics. The module, “Healthful Eating Choices,” is enduring material and designated by the AMA for one AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ (CME information and disclosures).

Nutrition Science for Health and Longevity: What Every Physician Needs to Know,” is a four-hour, self-paced course instructing physicians on how to begin an effective nutrition conversation with patients. It is developed and hosted by the Gaples Institute for Integrative Cardiology, a nonprofit focused on enhancing the role of nutrition and lifestyle in health care, and distributed in collaboration with the AMA Ed Hub™.