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Warning labels could help customers identify hidden sugar in restaurant menus: Researchers find added-sugar menu labels are perceived as effective

Do you really want to order a soda with your burger? Just one soda can have more added sugar than the entire daily limit recommended for most adults.

Seeing a warning icon on a restaurant menu may help consumers identify the high amounts of added sugar hidden in menu items — and it may even convince them to reach for healthier items like water.

Those are the observations recorded in a new University of California, Davis, study. In a national survey sampling more than 1,300 adults, researchers found that added-sugar warnings with icons plus text, or icons only, were effective at getting a “high added sugar” warning message across to people. The survey took place in 2021.

“Excess added sugar in our food supply is a leading driver of Type 2 diabetes, which is predicted to affect about half of all U.S. adults in their lifetime,” said the study’s lead author, Desiree Sigala, UC Davis postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular Biosciences.

The study, published online in the July issue of the journal Preventive Medicine, is believed to be the first of its kind to design and test the effects of added-sugar warnings for restaurant menus. And while the United States Food and Drug Administration requires large chain restaurants to make some nutrition information available in restaurants, there is currently no requirement for added sugar to be publicly disclosed for restaurant foods, researchers said.

This leaves consumers in the dark about the high levels of added sugar in their meals, which can contribute to negative health outcomes, researchers said. New York City recently sought to address this problem by passing a law requiring added-sugar warnings on prepackaged restaurant menu items. Policymakers across the country are considering similar warnings for added sugar on restaurant menus.

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