Sugars added to majority of packaged foods – here's how we can slash it

This is the season for sweet surprises, special treats and indulgent bliss.

But the amounts of added sugar year-round, on ordinary days is staggering. Most of this added sugar is in processed foods, as food makers have learned long ago that to increase sales, just add sugar. Or high fructose corn syrup, or fruit juice concentrate, or any of the other sneaky forms of caloric sweeteners that practically act in the same way in our body.

We’ve come to understand, over the last few decades, that caloric sweeteners not only add to overall caloric intake – leading to overweight and obesity – but also have direct effects on the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other metabolic adverse outcomes.

In a new paper in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology Barry Popkins and Corinna Hawkes review the current global trends in sugar intake –- especially sugary drink intake.

Here are some interesting findings:

  • 68 percent of packaged foods and beverages contain added sugars

This finding comes from analyzing a representative sample of American households, looking at what they buy, and then examining the nutritional profile of these products.

  • Governments around the world are looking to reduce sugar in the diet

The authors look at tactics and policies undertaken by countries, which include:


5 countries in Latin America and Europe are trying this: Chile, Mexico, Finland, Hungary and France. There are a few small islands (such as Samoa and Mauritius), and a city (Berkeley CA) that also passed a tax. Those taxes are rather small, well below the 20 percent recommended by scholars.

Outcomes have been positive in Hungary, France and Mexico.

A recent article in the Economist assesses that “taxes on fizzy drinks seem to work as intended” – namely, they increase the price of sugary products to consumers, and curb the sugary slurp.

Awareness campaigns, restricted availability and marketing

Governments have been setting standards for what should be served and sold in schools, trying to reduce exposure to soda ads and enacting public campaigns such as NYC’s Pouring on the Pounds. Getting the message out relies on sustained and continuous efforts, on multiple channels.


A food label that clearly states how much sugar is in a product might affect both consumers, who want to eat less added sugar, and food makers, who’d like to declare a healthier product. Ecuador started a traffic light label, which displays sugar, fat and salt levels with red, orange and green lights. It seems to work. The UK had a similar, voluntary, traffic light label, which was revised in 2013 by the government. Chile requires a warning label on foods high in added sugar, salt and saturated fat. The authors say that the effects of these labels on what people buy and eat are not fully evaluated, but can change both habits and formulation. 

Here in the US, it’s still hard to know how much sugar is added to a product.

Naturally occurring sugar, such as what’s in fruits and vegetables, and added sugar, such as HFCS, are lumped together as “total sugar”, despite the big difference between how those behave in our body. The FDA wants to make it easier, and has proposed a label makeover that will require listing the amount of added sugar on the nutrition panel, and also, to put it in perspective, by calculating how much of the daily value this added sugar represents. Up until now, upper limits for sugar were not listed on labels at all. Since added sugar should not exceed 10 percent of total calories, a 20-ounce of soda will have to admit it supplies well over the entire daily sugar allowance.

The proposed label changes were up for public comment until the end of October, and the final decision will be out soon. If it passes, already motivated people will have a chance at making better-informed sugar choices.

Dr. Ayala

We’ve come to understand, over the last few decades, that caloric sweeteners not only add to overall caloric intake – leading to overweight and obesity – but also have direct effects on the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other metabolic adverse outcomes.