A recent perspective article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has questioned whether nutrient-content claims—such as “sugar-free,” “high in oat bran,” or “contains 100 calories”—are confusing to consumers. Authored by Allison Sylvetsky and William Dietz, the article claims that sugar- and calorie-related claims “may lead parents to underestimate the products’ energy content and allow their children to consume more than they otherwise would.”

According to the authors, the use of nonnutritive sweeteners in sugar- and calorie-modified products “may still foster the development of a ‘sweet tooth’ because nonnutritive sweeteners are a hundred times sweeter than table sugar by weight.” In addition, U.S. consumers have no way to gauge whether their children have exceeded the acceptable daily intake for a particular nonnutritive sweetener because the amount added to any given product is considered proprietary information.

“We believe that adopting a more straightforward and easily understandable ingredient-labeling system in the United States and educating parents in the interpretation of sugar- and calorie-related nutrient-content claims through transparent food marketing are needed steps to empower parents to make informed choices,” conclude the authors. “If the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] revised the current labeling requirements for foods and beverages bearing sugar- and calorie-related nutrient-content claims in this way, the replacement of added sugars with other sweet ingredients would be clearly highlighted.” See NEJM, July 17, 2014.