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Health officials detail proposed changes to food labels, school meals to reduce sugar consumption

November 6, 2023

Government agencies, the food industry and communities say they are making efforts to decrease added sugars in foods and beverages.

The groups detailed their work Monday during a meeting hosted by federal health officials on added sugar consumption in the U.S., which threatens the health of millions of Americans.

Added sugars have been linked to an array of health risks, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease and tooth decay. The most common sources are sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, desserts and other sweets.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 recommend no more than 10% of total calories per day come from added sugars and that children under 2 years of age avoid foods and beverages with added sugars. However, about 70%-80% of school-age children exceed the recommended limits, health officials said Monday.

The White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health released in September 2022 called for a healthier food supply including reducing added sugar.

“We know it’s not enough simply to provide people with food,” said Cindy Long, M.P.A., administrator of Food and Nutrition Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “We need to connect them with nutritious food that promotes good health. Our vision is of an America where everyone has consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe and affordable food that is essential to optimal health and well-being.”

The USDA’s recent efforts to reduce added sugar have targeted school meals. National school breakfast and lunch programs provide meals each day to 15 million and 29 million children, respectively. While the meals have calorie limits, they do not have limits on added sugars. The USDA has proposed imposing standards for desserts, cereals, yogurts and flavored milk starting in fall 2025. Starting in fall 2027, it would like to limit added sugars to 10% of calories in weekly school lunch and breakfast menus. The agency hopes to issue a final rule next spring.

“At USDA, we really believe that a healthier future starts with children, and school meals are a proven tool for giving children access to the nutrition they need to be healthy and to thrive,” said Tina Namian, J.D., M.S.W., director of the USDA’s School Meals Policy Division.

The Food and Drug Administration also is making efforts to reduce sugar consumption. In 2016, it announced it would require food labels to list added sugars. Last year, it proposed a rule to update the criteria for foods being labeled “healthy.” The proposed definition would include limits on added sugar, saturated fat and sodium. The agency also is exploring standard labeling for the front of food packaging that would help consumers identify healthy food more easily. In addition, it is looking at online grocery platforms to ensure they are giving accurate nutrition information.

Several communities are taking initiative to reduce sugar. New York City, for example, is working with food and beverage companies and has set voluntary sugar reduction targets. It is encouraging companies to reformulate their products, discontinue certain products, introduce new products and shift marketing to reach the targets. In Alaska, the Play Every Day campaign includes education for families on reading nutrition labels on the back of products and ignoring potentially misleading claims on the front.

Industry groups at Monday’s meeting also detailed their efforts. Food manufacturer Danone is reducing sugar in its yogurt by using different cultures and increasing other flavor intensities. Keurig Dr. Pepper detailed a successful experiment with making healthy beverages more prominent in a grocery store, and the National Restaurant Association has launched an initiative to encourage restaurants to serve healthier children’s meals.

Shu Wen Ng, Ph.D., professor and distinguished scholar of public health nutrition in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said lessons can be learned from other countries that have lowered sugar consumption by increasing taxes, restricting marketing of unhealthy foods to children, limiting the types of foods that can be served to children in schools and placing warning labels on the front of unhealthy food packages. She encouraged officials to consider mandatory regulations, look at sweetness and not just sugar, and increase access to healthy food.

“While policies to discourage the availability and consumption of unhealthy foods are necessary, there’s also a need to encourage the supply and demand of healthy minimally processed or unprocessed foods and drinks,” Dr. Ng said. “Fiscal, labeling and marketing policies and regulations of the food environment in schools and public spaces are all critical and necessary policies that should work in concert toward sweetness reduction.”

The AAP has been working for years to reduce consumption of added sugar. In a 2019 policy statement, it called for using strategies like excise taxes, ensuring access to healthy food and beverages in federal nutrition assistance programs, improving nutrition information on food products and making water and milk default choices in children’s meals. In a 2019 consensus statement on healthy beverages, the AAP and partners encouraged children to drink primarily water and plain milk, adding that small amounts of 100% juice are OK.

Federal officials will get more feedback on added sugar consumption during listening sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday. It also is accepting comments through Jan. 22, 2024, at



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