By Mike Pomranz
Updated January 05, 2017
Credit: Peter Dazeley

Nutrition Facts labels are supposed to make maintaining a healthy diet easier – but determining how things should be listed on those labels has actually been quite difficult. And one of the biggest changes coming to the new and improved labels is proving to be the most contentious: a forthcoming line for added sugars.

With a 2018 compliance date now looming closer, food brands – many of whom are already unhappy at the prospect of having to explicitly state the amount of sugar being added to their products – have been pondering an even bigger question: What exactly is the difference between natural sugar and added sugar anyway? The answer, it turns out, is a bit more complex than simply saying pouring sugar on a banana is added sugar. Because what if the sugar you pour on your banana was also extracted from a banana? Yeah, it’s a pretty deep thought.

To help curb confusion, this month the FDA has issued a 22-page report intended to give the food industry guidance on the new labels, including eleven pages of Q&A dedicated to added sugars. And if your food company doesn’t have a mathematician on staff, you may want to hire one as the document offers up wonderful examples like this one for fruit juice: “The ratio of apple:mango:pear is 10% x 4 : 10% x 3 : 20% x 2 = 4:3:4, or 36.4%: 27.2%: 36.4%. The theoretical sugar content in the single strength blend is: 11.5% x 36.4% + 13% x 27.2% + 12% x 36.4% = 12.09%.” Alright, scratch the apple/mango/pear blend. We’re just going back to making plain old apple juice.

But in simple terms, the difference between a natural sugar and an added sugar is generally logical. If the sugars in your product are at the same levels as when the fruit (or whatever sugary food your product includes) was grown, those are just regular sugars. However, if you’re altering the natural balance of sugars by either adding more sugar or reducing the non-sugar part (aka concentrating the amount of sugar), you now have a more sugary product, so those would count as “added sugars.” Although there are a few exceptions to that rule like dried fruit, 100 percent juice concentrate and purees.

So maybe it is a bit confusing. But if you don’t feel like wrapping your head around it, there’s always the possibility that the new Nutrition Facts rules could be axed after Trump takes office. Though just think how many mathematicians would lose their jobs.