A row is brewing over the merits of including ‘added sugars’ on the Nutrition Facts panel, with critics arguing that our bodies don’t distinguish between ‘naturally occurring’ and ‘added’ sugar - and neither should food labels - and supporters saying it will help consumers identify foods with more empty calories.
The FDA - which is pondering the biggest overhaul of food labels in 20 years (click HERE ) - acknowledges that biochemically, sugar is sugar - whether it occurs naturally in foods such as fruits or is added to a product such as soda.
However, it believes that highlighting the added variety will “help individuals identify foods that are nutrient-dense within calorie limits and aid in reducing excess discretionary calorie intake from added sugars”.
Naturally occurring and added sugars have the same physiological impact, but the difference is significant when considering dietary quality
The American Diabetes Association - along with hundreds of dietitians who have responded individually via comments to the docket (click HERE to read them all) - agrees, adding: “While it is true that naturally occurring sugars and added sugars have the same physiological impact, the difference is significant when considering dietary quality.
“Foods high in added sugars such as sodas and sweets are nutritionally inferior to foods high in naturally occurring sugar such as fruit and milk.
“Knowing how much added sugar a food or beverage contains is key in ensuring individuals are able to make dietary decisions to reduce their consumption.”
The American Heart Association also strongly supports the proposal on the grounds that added sugars are a “significant source of excess calories” , while Weight Watchers says “consumers need information that allows them to distinguish between naturally occurring sugars that are present in many nutrient rich foods, like milk, fruit, and vegetables, from sugars that provide no nutritional value.”
Bakers: It would be false and misleading to distinguish between added and naturally occurring sugar
However, other commentators have voiced strong concerns both about how the measure would work in practice (how easy would it be to calculate/define added sugar vs total sugar in a given product?) and whether it is misleading and unscientific to differentiate between ‘naturally occurring’ and ‘added’ sugar.
One of the proposal’s biggest critics is The American Bakers Association, which has filed a 31-page comment claiming it would be “false and misleading to imply, as a declaration of added sugars clearly would, that added sugars are distinguishable in any way from any other analytically quantifiable sugars from naturally-occurring sugars or from other sources in the product”.
The FDA, moreover, has failed to present any evidence to support its assertion that listing added sugars will help consumers make healthier choices, claims the ABA, which predicts a First Amendment challenge on the grounds that the measure would compel firms to include false and misleading information on labels.
Sugar Association: Sugars make many healthy foods palatable
The Sugar Association meanwhile, says what matters when it comes to weight management is calories, and calories from sugar are the same whether they are added or naturally occurring.
Similarly, an analysis of dietary intake data does not support claims made by the FDA or the American Heart Association that people with a diet higher in added sugars have lower micronutrient intakes, or a higher BMI, it claims.
It also observes that sugars aren’t just added to ‘junk’ foods, and that sugars make many healthy foods palatable - a point also made by The Cherry Marketing Institute and cranberry giant Ocean Spray, which say listing added sugar would unfairly discriminate against fruits that are nutrient dense but tart, and typically require some added sugar to improve palatability.
The ABA also claims that the measure will encourage manufacturers to reformulate by replacing sugars with fats or “bulking agents such as glycerol or maltodextrins” which “provide no nutritional benefit” and may increase a product’s overall calorie count.
ASN: Move could divert attention from calories
Even nutrition scientists are not all on the same page, says Dr Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, noting in her Food Politics blog (click HERE ) that The Union of Concerned Scientists is in favor, while The American Society for Nutrition is opposed.
According to the UCS - comprising high profile scientists, physicians, and public health officials - “Many food and beverage manufacturers add excessive amounts of sugar to their products, including those that they market as healthy options… Many people are unknowingly and unavoidably consuming excess sugar.”
But the ASN worries that highlighting added sugars on labels “may divert attention away from total calories and other important contributors to weight gain” and fears it may “create the perception that naturally occurring sugars are somehow more beneficial because they are ‘natural’.”
Says Dr Nestle: “I wonder how much of the ASN membership agrees with this position? I certainly don’t.”
Click HERE to read comments from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which is in favor of including added sugars on the panel (which is says should be expressed as teaspoons as well as grams), but notes that the FDA "did not propose a Daily Value for added sugars, which would make it impossible for consumers to know how much of a day’s worth of added sugars a food contained".