New York City to require warnings on all chain restaurant menu items that are high in added sugars

Orange fountain soda

Josephina Kolpachnikof -

Most fountain drinks contain a day’s worth of added sugars

The New York City Council today passed historic legislation that will require warnings on all menu items at chain restaurants that contain more than a day’s worth of added sugars. The Sweet Truth Act expands on an earlier sugar warnings policy the City Council passed in 2021 that covered only limited items sold in restaurants and has not yet been implemented due to the pandemic.  

New York City has more than two thousand chain restaurant outlets that will be required to display the warnings.  Fast-food and fast-casual restaurants normalize foods and drinks with exceedingly high levels of added sugars, amounts that far exceed the FDA’s daily recommendation for consumption of 50 grams per day. A  recent report  by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that even most “small” fountain soda sold at leading fast-food chains contain more than a day’s worth of added sugars. Unlike the natural sugars found in unprocessed fruits and vegetables, which come with filling fiber and beneficial nutrients, added sugars are concentrated, empty calories, and their consumption has been linked to excess body weight in children and adults. Because they lead to weight gain, sugary drinks also contribute to type 2 diabetes and heart disease

According to a poll commissioned by CSPI in 2021, roughly 85 percent of New York City residents (and 78 percent of residents statewide) support added sugars warnings on chain restaurant menus. Support is bipartisan, with 66 percent of registered New York State Republicans in favor of added sugar warnings on chain menus. 

The New York City Council first directed the city’s health department to create added sugar warnings in 2021, but that law only covered prepackaged items, like bottled soda sold in coolers in restaurants. The original law also was not slated to go into effect until after the end of the COVID-19 local “state of emergency” order. 

The expansion passed today by the Council will extend the warnings to cover all restaurant items, including fountain drinks, which are the main source of added sugars in restaurant meals. Under the new law, the city’s health department has until June of 2024 to design the warnings, which should begin appearing in restaurants by 2025. 

The Sweet Truth Act is one of several actions being taken by the city during Diabetes Awareness Month to address chronic health conditions. One New York City resident dies every 90 minutes from diabetes-related causes, and the new law reflects a much-needed step towards reducing diabetes and other diet-related conditions.  

“With New York facing alarming rates of diabetes in both adults and children, communities deserve the truth about the amount of added sugars in foods and beverages offered at chain restaurants,” said CSPI’s senior policy associate Dr. DeAnna Nara. “This bill finally answers the community’s calls for warnings to cover all high-added sugars items, empowering consumers to make better choices and encouraging the food industry to present healthier options.”  

The bill will also require a factual warning statement about high added sugars intake, which will be displayed at the register, on the menu board, and next to places where high-sugar items are dispensed, such as soda fountains. 

One key challenge with enforcing the rule will be identifying menu items that are high in added sugars. The U.S Food and Drug Administration currently requires added sugars information to be published on prepackaged foods that carry a Nutrition Facts panel but has delayed requiring the same information for restaurant foods. Because of this, the City Council today also called on the FDA to require restaurants to make added sugars information publicly available. CSPI had previously petitioned the FDA with the same request last year. 

In the meantime, city officials will have to estimate added sugars for many menu items, such as fountain drinks, by comparing the restaurant item to a bottled or packaged version. But some can be harder to estimate, particularly when sugar is added to a recipe along with fruit or milk, which are naturally sweet. Menu items that lack a prepackaged equivalent will not have to carry warnings until the federal government requires restaurants to post added sugars information. 

“This bill provides a key opportunity for the FDA to directly act in support of communities that want to positively impact public health,” said Nara. “We urge the FDA to act quickly to ensure Americans have access to the information they need to make healthy choices for themselves and their families. We have a critical opportunity to create a healthier New York City to serve as a model for cities and states across the nation.” 

“I’ll keep this short and sweet: Today’s passage of Intro. 687 will help New Yorkers make smarter dietary decisions and lead healthier lives,” said City Council Majority Leader Keith Powers. “With diabetes and heart disease claiming far too many lives each year, the Sweet Truth Act provides much-needed transparency and information on the amount of added sugars found in our food.”  

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