Reducing Sugar Exposure

How can we reduce our exposure to added sugars? Six key policy approaches

The policies and actions covered in this toolkit work by engaging one or more of the following six key approaches for reducing the amount of sugar we confront in our diets.

1. Reduce added sugars in food and beverage products.


Reformulating products, particularly if done in a comprehensive manner, would be a highly effective way to reduce exposure to sugar. Reformulation has the potential to improve diet quality without requiring consumers to make a conscious choice to actively avoid added sugars. i Added sugar is present in 68 percent of all processed foods. It takes a lot of effort for us to cut down on sugar if we have to know how much sugar is in a product, figure out what proportion of the daily maximum intake this represents, and keep track of the sugar consumed across all food sources eaten that day. Reformulating products with less added sugar makes reducing sugar intake effortless for the consumer. And it can save lives. A French study estimated that deaths from nutrition-related diseases could be reduced by 5 percent—thousands of lives per year—with much greater benefits among low-income people.ii

Examples of this type of tactic could include:

2. Make sugary products more expensive to produce or buy.


If it costs more to produce products with sugar, manufacturers are more likely to use less sugar in their products. Likewise, if a product with more sugar is pricier than another with less sugar, we are more likely to choose the latter.

Examples of this type of tactic could include:

  • Levy a tax or fee on sugary drinks and/or other high-sugar products.
  • Limit the supply of sugar through agricultural or trade policy, thereby increasing the price of available supplies of sugar.
  • Impose a tax or fee on sugar

3. Reduce the availability of sugary products.


Over the last few decades, sugary drinks and snacks have become almost unavoidable, finding their way into schools, hospitals, childcare centers, gas stations, government buildings, recreation centers, and many more places. In the last few years, as evidence on sugar and health has accumulated, there has been a growing debate about whether these products are appropriate in many of these settings, particularly where kids are the target consumers, and in institutions, such as hospitals, where health is a focus.

Examples of this type of tactic could include:

  • Removing sugary products from schools.
  • Removing sugary drinks from hospitals and other healthcare settings.
  • Removing sugary drinks as the default beverage for kids’ meals in restaurants

Read more about removing drinks from institutional settings here.

4. Improve labeling and packaging of sugary products.


Labels with nutrition information, such as on the Nutrition Facts label, can help parents tell at a glance whether a “fruit drink” for young kids contains unhealthful amounts of added sugar. Health warning labels prominently placed on packages, or at the point of purchase for sugary products, can help consumers make decisions about which products to choose. Thanks to new federal requirements, consumers over the next two years will begin to see nutrition facts panels that disclose the amount of added sugars and the share of the recommended daily maximum it represents. However, advocates will need to help educate consumers on how to make use of label information and to alert people to more healthful options.

Examples of this type of tactic could include:

  • Requiring warning labels on sugary drink containers and/or on fountains and vending machines
  • Disclosing added sugars on nutrition labels, and educating the public on how to use this information to choose healthier products

5. Restrict advertising and promotion of sugary products.


Our culture is saturated with advertising and other marketing strategies aimed at promoting foods and drinks with added sugars. Processed food makers spend $1.8 billion per year in the U.S. on marketing aimed just at young people, according to the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Black and Hispanic youth are especially targeted. In-store promotions take the insistent sales pitch even farther. Limiting some of that pitching, particularly to the most vulnerable consumers, can help to limit the appeal and, in some cases, the availability of products with excessive sugar.

Examples of this type of tactic could include:

  • Restrict advertising to children
  • Restrict point-of-sale advertising, special promotions
  • Implement “healthy” check-out aisles free of sugary products

6. Engage in counter-advertising and education.

Overcoming the food and beverage industries’ multibillion-dollar marketing megaphone is a tall order, but some creative and well-executed tactics have been able to make a start. New York City, for example, developed campaigns to reduce the appeal of sugary drinks through the use of a graphic public awareness campaign with slogans such as “Don’t drink yourself fat.” Los Angeles County created a “Sugar Pack” campaign aimed to increase awareness of the number of sugar packets in sugary drinks, as well as the adverse health effects of obesity. Sending counter-marketing messages like the one above via social media or other channels works to decrease choice of sugary drinks. A recent study found that culturally-tailored social media counter-marketing messages against sugary fruit drinks reduced Latinx parents purchases for their children of these beverages in a simulated online store. Water purchases increased.

Examples of this type of tactic could include:

  • Launching public awareness and counter-marketing campaigns for sugary products. Use this toolkit to learn more about counter-marketing messages
  • Requiring warning labels on packaging or advertising for sugary drinks
  • Providing nutrition education in schools, worksites, and community settings

i Combris P, Goglia R, Henini M, Soler LG, Spiteri M. Improvement of the nutritional quality of foods as a public health tool. Public Health. 2011 Oct;125(10):717-24.

ii Leroy P, Réquillart V, Soler LG, Enderli G. An assessment of the potential health impacts of food reformulation. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2016 Jun;70(6):694-9.

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