Added Sugar: Taxes, Claims, and Labeling Regulations Impact on Consumers

By: Britteny Junious

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Sugar has been a hot topic discussion among the sugar industry and its advocates, food regulatory officials, and dieticians for decades. The most prominent reason has been America’s struggle with controlling obesity rates and diabetes. It has been argued that to help control obesity, we must limit our daily intake of added sugars. The most recent 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that Americans’ consumption of calories from added sugar should account for no more than ten percent of their daily calories (See article page 41). For example, for the average 2,000 calorie diet, a person should not consume more than 200 calories of added sugar. Americans battled with ways to decrease sugar consumption for years. Dating back to 2011, Nourish by WebMD published an article ‘13 Ways to Fight Sugar Cravings’. This article by author Wendy C. Fries discussed the reasons we crave sugar and how to curb our sugar cravings. Fries stated that carbohydrates stimulate the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Given that sugar is a carbohydrate, we utilize sugar to stimulate the release of serotonin. Since the feel-good sugar high does not last long, people often consume copious amounts of sugar to continuously release serotonin. According to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar in one year, about six cups of sugar per week. However, high added sugar consumption might actually decrease serotonin metabolism. (See Effects of sugar brain serotonin,).

So, how does America’s added sugar consumption impact food regulatory laws? It impacts food and nutrition labeling, as well as, how food is marketed and advertised to consumers. Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (“NLEA”), giving the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) authority to require nutrition labeling on food packaging. The FDA developed the nutrition facts panel, initially determining that sugar was not required on a food package nutrition label. However, after extensive comments questioning the Agency’s decision, the FDA required labels to include the total amount of sugar (not the amount of added sugar). In 2017, the FDA announced the most comprehensive reform to the Nutrition Facts Label since 1993 – stating that nutrition labels are required to include the amount of and percent Daily Value for added sugars.

As a result of the new 2020 Dietary Guidelines and added sugar labeling requirements, states are pushing to enact laws that impose a tax on sugary beverages.  For example, Hawaii Governor David Ige proposed a new 2-cent-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks through the introduction of House Bill 994 (HB-994) and Senate Bill 1148 (SB-1148). If passed, the bills would require manufacturers or wholesale dealers of sugar-sweetened beverages, sugary syrups, or sugary powders for beverages to pay a 2-cent-per-fluid ounce fee. Governor Ige stated that these bills aim to lower the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages – thereby preventing weight gain, obesity, prediabetes, diabetes, tooth decay, and heart disease in the state. Another example is Washington state’s Senate Bill 5371 (SB 5371), which would impose a tax of $0.0175 per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages that have more than 20-calories of added sugar per 12-ounce serving.

Nonetheless, the argument is that these bills are unlikely to pass. The issue is it is unlikely that the sugary-beverage tax will decrease overall consumer consumption of sugary beverages. Instead, the imposed tax might only suffice to increase the amount that consumers pay for sugary beverages. The aggressive fight against sugar is unlikely to be resolved by imposing taxes, even if those taxes would go towards programs to help fight obesity and conduct research in low-income areas with decreased access to healthy foods. The problem is more than added sugar, and it cannot simply be fixed by imposing a tax that will ultimately become a burden on consumers. An imposed sugary-beverage tax is likely to act as a price-inflating tool rather than a consumer deterrent from sugary beverages. Instead, legislators might find it more impactful to fight obesity and added sugar consumption by making healthier foods cheaper and more accessible.