Added Sugar Labels Could Prevent Thousands of Diabetes, Heart Disease Cases

APRIL 16, 2019
Jared Kaltwasser
New research finds labels that disclose added sugar amounts in food products could end up saving the health care system $31 billion and preventing nearly a million new cases of disease. These nutrition labels could help prevent more than 350,000 cases of heart disease and 600,000 cases of type 2 diabetes.

The impact could double if the warning labels cause food and beverage manufacturers to cut back on their use of added sugars.

The predictions come in a study published by investigators from Tufts University. The research follows the US Food and Drug Administration’s decision in 2016 to begin requiring food makers to disclose added sugars on nutrition labels. The new label is slated to begin appearing on food labels January 1, 2020, with smaller food manufacturers receiving an additional year to comply.

Corresponding author Renata Micha, RD, PhD, of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said she and colleagues wanted to quantify what impact the change would have on public health.

“Our results indicate that timely implementation of the added sugars label could reduce consumption of foods and beverages with added sugars, which could then lead to an improvement in health and a reduction in healthcare spending,” she said in a statement.

The study is based on a validated microsimulation model that used representative demographic and dietary intake data in order to construct a picture of how the change might affect behavior over a 20-year time span stretching from 2018 to 2037. The new rule was originally slated to go into effect in 2018, but food manufacturers were given a 2-year extension.

In addition to preventing 354,400 cases of cardiovascular disease and 599,300 cases of diabetes mellitus, the study found the population would gain 727,000 quality-adjusted life-years and save $31 billion in health care spending. That’s a major reduction in health spending, though Micha and colleagues noted that spending on cardiovascular diseases and diabetes is already very high. They write that direct and indirect diabetes costs to the health care system are $245 billion per year, and cardiovascular disease adds $555 billion in total costs.

However, Micha noted that the actual overall cost savings will likely be significantly larger than the $31 billion in the study, since the study focused only on 2 major disease categories.

“Our findings may be conservative and underestimate the full health and economic impacts,” she said.

Martin O’Flaherty, MD, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Liverpool and the co-senior author on the study, said the public responds positively when given actionable information about what they are eating.

"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," O’Flaherty said in a press release. "Full implementation of the label before 2021 could help maximize health and economic gains."

Micha noted that the labels could also have the effect of causing manufacturers to reformulate their products so as to reduce the amount of added sugar in the product and on the label.

“Modest industry reformulation would be a powerful way to maximize potential benefits, highlighting industry's critical role in being part of the solution,” she said.

The study, “Cost-Effectiveness of the US Food and Drug Administration Added Sugar Labeling Policy for Improving Diet and Health,” was published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

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