The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new “added sugar” labeling policy for packaged foods and beverages are set to take effect between 2020 and 2021.
New research shows that this could be a cost-effective way to generate important health gains and cost-savings for both the healthcare system and society in the U.S., according to a new modeling study led by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and the University of Liverpool.
The analysis is the first to estimate the potential health and economic impacts of the new label.
In 2016, the FDA announced several mandatory changes to the Nutrition Facts label in order to provide consumers with enhanced nutritional information.
Among the changes was adding the grams and percent Daily Value of added sugar content, which would help consumers limit calories from added sugar in accordance with the recommendations of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“The added sugar label is an important policy step toward reducing consumption of foods and beverages with high added sugar contents, improving health, and lowering healthcare spending,” says Dr. Renata Micha, the study’s co-senior author and research associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “These findings have important implications for individuals, policymakers and the food industry alike.”
Micha says modest industry reformulation would be a powerful way to maximize potential benefits, highlighting the industry’s critical role in being part of the solution.
How was the Study Conducted?
The researchers used a validated microsimulation model (IMPACT) to estimate the potential health impact, costs, and cost-effectiveness of the FDA’s added sugar label based on the two scenarios, which were compared with a “no intervention” baseline scenario over a 20-year timeframe (2018-2037).
The model generated a sample representative of the U.S. adult population and utilized data from the two most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey cycles (2011-2014), CDC Wonder, meta-analyses, and other validated sources.
The model evaluated health benefits and cost-savings from cardiometabolic health outcomes; increased healthcare costs from competing diseases could reduce cost-effectiveness, while other health benefits would further contribute to health gains and cost-savings.
What are the Study Findings?
The study estimates that the FDA’s added sugar label could prevent or postpone nearly 1 million cases of cardiometabolic disease, including heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes, over a 20-year period.
When combined with possible industry reformulations to reduce added sugar content in packaged foods and beverages, the label could prevent or postpone nearly 3 million cases of cardiovascular disease and diabetes over the same time period.
Cost-effectiveness of each scenario was evaluated from a healthcare perspective (accounting for policy costs and medical costs) and from a societal perspective (further accounting for informal care costs and lost productivity costs).
Both scenarios were estimated to be cost-effective within five years and cost-saving within seven years.
The analysis estimates that the added sugar label could:
- Prevent or postpone 354,400 cases of cardiovascular disease and 599,300 cases of diabetes
- Gain 727,000 quality-adjusted-life-years
- Save $31 billion in net healthcare costs and $61.9 billion in societal costs. Policy costs were estimated to be $1.7 billion.
Taking into consideration possible reformulation by the food industry, the analysis yielded greater corresponding gains, estimating that the new label could:
- Prevent or postpone 708,800 cases of cardiovascular disease and 1.2 million cases of diabetes;
- Gain 1.3 million quality-adjusted-life-years
- Save $57.6 billion in net healthcare costs and $113.2 billion in societal costs. Policy costs, including industry reformulation costs, were estimated to be $4.3 billion.
While some companies have begun listing added sugar content, the 2018 deadline for compliance has been extended to 2020 for large manufacturers and 2021 for small manufacturers.
“Informing consumers about what is in their sugary drinks, cakes, and sweets will help them decide what they want to eat for their health now and later,” says Dr. Martin O’Flaherty, co-senior author, and professor in epidemiology at the University of Liverpool. “Full implementation of the label before 2021 could help maximize health and economic gains.”
The researchers note that Americans consume more than 15 percent of their total calories from added sugars and overconsumption of added sugars is linked to an increased risk of cardiometabolic diseases.
These diseases pose large health and economic burdens for the society and the healthcare system.
Food labeling could be an effective strategy to support informed consumer choice and reduce added sugar intake, while further stimulating industry reformulation, as supported by recent experience with trans fat labeling in the U.S.
The ADA’s Role
The American Diabetes Association has been a strong proponent of these updates to the Nutrition Facts label since the FDA proposed them in 2014.
“Specifically, we supported the requirement that added sugars to be declared on the label as well as the increased prominence of the caloric content declaration,” Krista Maier, vice president of public policy and strategic alliances at ADA tells dLife.
“This information is very important for people who are trying to reduce calories and carbohydrates allowing them to easily assess the quality and impact of the foods they are choosing.”
Maier says the Nutrition Facts label changes were finalized by the FDA in 2016, with a target enforcement date of July 2018.
Over the last several years, the ADA has banded together with other groups focused on nutrition issues to urge the FDA to stay the course in implementing the revised Nutrition Facts label – particularly the added sugars declaration.
“Unfortunately, the FDA announced a delay of enforcement until January 2020, but the changes we’ve supported for the past five years are still part of the updated labels,” Maier says.
As far as those who may think this small change will not help prevent millions of new cases of diabetes, Sacha Uelmen, RDN, CDE, Managing Director of Diabetes Education and Nutrition at ADA tells dLife that the research conducted by Micha and her team shows that implementation of the added sugar labeling would prevent almost 600,000 cases of Type 2 diabetes.
“In addition, if food manufacturers reformulate their products in response to the added sugar labeling requirement, a total of 1.2 million cases of Type 2 diabetes would be prevented,” Uelmen says.
Uelmen explains the new labels are particularly helpful for people who are trying to reduce their total calorie or added sugar intake.
“Serving sizes are also required to be more realistic in terms of what Americans are really eating,” she indicates. “For people with diabetes and without, it’s important to review the serving size and calories, both more visible and bold on the new label.”
Uelmen says reading the labels is the first step, but using them to compare similar items while shopping to determine the best choice for you based on individual needs can be a great starting point.
The ADA does not have data on how many food and beverage companies have already updated the Nutrition Facts labels on their products, but both Maier and Uelmen have seen many new labels on foods already in the market.
The study has been published in Circulation.
- Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus. (2019, April 15). FDA added sugar label could be a cost-effective way to improve health, generate savings. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190415081951.htm
- Diabetes Care. Scientific Statement: Socioecological Determinants of Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes. (2013, August ). Retrieved May 2, 2019, from http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/diacare/36/8/2430.full.pdf.