Could Warning Labels Help Reduce Sugar Intake?

American kids—and adults—eat too much sugar. Here’s how some states are trying to help people take in less.

spoonful of sugar

Updated on April 29, 2022.

There are plenty of things American kids don’t get enough of—sleep, exercise, and time away from screens, for starters. But one thing they have in ample supply is sugar.

In 2017-2018, children and young adults between 2 to 19 years old consumed about 17 teaspoons of sugar each day. Boys tend to eat more (about 18 teaspoons per day) than girls, who eat about 15 teaspoons a day.

Research shows that humans are naturally drawn to sweet tastes, says Carla Laos, MD, a pediatrician at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center in Texas. Most children (and many adults) would choose sugary foods for every meal, if given the choice, she says.

But eating too much sugar is linked to a slew of health problems. “Calories that come from sugar will quickly add up and, over time, lead to weight gain and tooth decay,” says Dr. Laos. It's important for parents to set limits and teach moderation, she says.

How much sugar is too much?

Sugar in food comes in two general types. Natural sugars are those that are part of the food or beverage in its original state. Dairy products and fruits, for example, contain natural sugars, among other nutrients.

Added sugars, on the other hand, are sugars and syrups, such as high fructose corn syrup, that are added to foods and beverages during processing or preparation to enhance flavor. They are high in calories and offer little in the way of nutrients, and they may be lurking in foods not conventionally considered to be “sweet,” like ketchup, barbeque sauce, and salad dressings. Added sugar is what we need to avoid as much as possible.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children 2 years and older limit added sugar to no more than 10 percent of their daily calories. That translates to having no more than 12 teaspoons, or about 200 calories, of added sugar per day (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). Kids under the age of 2 should avoid added sugars altogether. 

As all parents know, this advice is easier said than followed. What may be more realistic than targeting specific amounts of sugar is to follow the advice of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which recommends that instead of obsessing over grams or teaspoons, caregivers can focus on consuming less added sugar by limiting the kinds of products that contain it.

Warning labels on food products may make doing so much easier.

Understanding sugar warning labels

In 2019, lawmakers in California advanced a bill that will require beverage manufacturers to warn consumers of the health risks associated with drinking beverages that contain more than 75 calories per 12 fluid ounces. For example, a label may say: “Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

Similarly, New York City lawmakers passed the Sweet Truth Act in late 2021 that would mandate that restaurant chains notify customers of beverages with over 50 grams (about 12 teaspoons) of added sugar.

And two studies published in 2020 show that this type of warning label works to discourage people from choosing sugary beverages, such as soda. In one study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, warning labels lowered sugary beverage consumption by 19 percent, especially for fruit-flavored drinks, sweetened teas, and flavored milk.

Having warning labels in the form of pictures may also be effective in discouraging people from buying sugary drinks. A 2022 study published in PLOS Medicine showed that pictorial health warning labels reduced the number of purchases of sugary drinks for kids by 17 percent.

This research suggests that parents are becoming more aware than ever of the dangers of eating too much sugar—and that is a good thing, says Laos. She believes these warnings will help parents make better choices for their kids.

Warning labels work in tandem with nutrition labels

In 2022, the Food and Drug Administration made the decision to separate total sugars and added sugars on nutrition labels in an effort to help consumers make healthier and more informed choices. Including added sugars on labels is one move to support the efforts of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reduce daily sugar consumption.

Teaching kids to make better choices

The human body needs sugar to function—it provides fuel for cells and energy—so you don’t have to and shouldn’t cut all sugar out of your child’s diet. But it’s best to get sugar from natural sources and even then, eat it in moderation.

“We're trying to teach and guide parents into understanding that the choices they make for their children today are going to benefit them five, ten, twenty years from now,” says Laos.

“We’re not suggesting you do away with household sugars altogether,” she adds. Rather, monitoring how much is available to your kids will help them stay healthy now and in the future.

Other ways to satisfy your child’s sweet tooth

Laos recommends satisfying your child’s sweet tooth with healthier alternatives, such as giving them naturally sweetened foods like bananas, apples, blueberries, and grapes. Natural honey is a good sweetener substitute, too. And because kids aren’t always going to choose fruit, let them splurge every now and then on healthier sweets, such as dark chocolate.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get the Facts: Added Sugars. Page last reviewed November 28, 2021.
United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The Scoop on Added Sugars. Page last reviewed March 2021.
Lauren M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Columbia University. The New York City Council Passes the Sweet Truth Act. Page last reviewed January 27, 2022.
An R, Liu J, Liu R, Barker AR, Figueroa RB, McBride TD. Impact of sugar-sweetened beverage warning labels on consumer behaviors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2021; 60(1), 115-126.
Leung CW, Wolfson JA, Hsu R, Soster K, Mangan S, Falbe J. Warning labels reduce sugar-sweetened beverage intake among college students. The Journal of Nutrition. 2021; 151(1), 179-185.
Hall MG, Grummon AH, Higgins IC, Lazard AJ, Prestemon CE, Avendaño-Galdamez MI, Taillie, LS. The impact of pictorial health warnings on purchases of sugary drinks for children: A randomized controlled trial. PLoS Medicine. 2022; 19(2), e1003885.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Added Sugars on the New Nutrition Facts Label. Page last reviewed February 25, 2022.

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