The changes to the nutrition facts panel that were recently finalized by the US Food and Drug Administration have been criticized by industry sources as adding detail at the expense of consumer understanding. Some changes have sparked little argument, such as the modification in portion sizes to reflect how consumers actually consume food products. Energy beverages that divided the bottle up into two servings were an obvious example from the past that called out for a change as the percentage of consumers who actually used them this way—drinking half of the bottle and saving the rest for later—probably figured in the single digits.
Added sugar angst
But the way that sugars will now be denoted when the labels take effect in late July 2018 (small manufacturers with less than $10 million in sales have an additional year to comply) had caused much consternation in industry when it was first proposed. Total sugar is now called out with a subset of sugars added in the formulation stage. Added sugars, it has been feared, could become the bogeyman of the new age, an age in which one can easily foresee social media influencers who are blasting products that rely on sugars that ‘they’ added, sugars that were added because ‘they’ were too lazy or incompetent to make the food palatable in any other way.
For sweetener expert John Fry, PhD, what FDA did was merely to codify what consumers are already worried about.
“Sugar reduction is already a big deal—it is one of today’s main themes in food processing. The FDA’s proposal merely underlines that sugars content is a matter of consumer concern that won’t go away,” Fry told FoodNavigator-USA.
And to some degree, Fry, who since 1997 has directed Connect Consulting, a technical resource for sweetener manufacturers and users, said he agrees with the spirit of the change in that food processors had taken to using a blizzard of verbiage to camouflage to some extant that sugar was being added to processed foods. One of the more creative of these, “evaporated cane juice,” was the subject of an FDA guidance issued in late May. The agency said this ingredient should be labeled for what it is—sugar.
“The changes proposed by the FDA to the nutritional fact panel as well as serving size has certainly caused product formulators to look at how their new label will look to consumers. For some this is likely causing great angst. There are multiple synonyms for ‘added sugars’ that are used in products (The US Dept. of Health and Human Services has noted 23 different names for what are in effect, added sugars). The FDA proposal will provide a single number that will allow consumers a clearer view of what all these names actually mean in the product they eat or drink,” Fry said.
These changes come at a propitious time for the purveyors of alternative sweeteners, Fry said. The formulation challenges presented by these products, stevia in particular, have been mostly surmounted in a serious of progressive steps to where the sweet-but-metallic-tasting stevia formulations of the past are becoming a thing of the past and only show up in products like multi-ingredient powder formulas where a commodity ingredient choice might make sense.
“Stevia and monk fruit are the most popular high potentcy sweeteners of natural origin partly because they are the only ones available. Both work well, although complete replacement of sugars (in, say, beverages) by these two alone remains technically challenging.Stevia has a leading position because there is a wide range of different leaf extracts for different purposes, and more research has been done on stevia, resulting in ever-improving taste qualities. Monk fruit is also relatively expensive,” Fry said.
Fry said stevia has carved out a market niche in which consumers are familiar with the ingredient and are choosing it in increasing number. Fry credits Cargill, a company with which he has consulted for a number of years, for much of this market push with its its Truvia brand of table top sweeteners and baking ingredients.
“I think consumers are always ready to look at new products, especially if they chime with today’s priorities for reduced sugar and nature-based ingredients. And if they try the latest products they’ll find that stevia really has moved on since the early days.The huge success of Truvia tabletop sweeteners also shows that the taste of stevia is here to stay, while continued growth in the stevia ingredient market points to a rosy future for the sweetener,” he said.
Can less sugar mean thinner consumers?
The goal of the labeling change is to make the content of food more immediately clear to consumers so that they can make better choices. Obesity and its assorted ailments such as type 2 diabetes is a rising tide around the world. A recent study published in The Lancet journal found that the number of obese people around the world now outnumbers the number of underweight people—a first. This looming public health crisis—the potential health care costs alone are staggering not to mention the harder-to-quantify, hidden costs such as lost productivity from premature disability and death—have sounded alarm bells among a number of goverments. Mexico, for instance, last year instituted a stiff tax on sugar sweetened beverages in an effort to stem the tide in that country, which along with the US, New Zealand and some of the states around the Persian Gulf account for the fattest counties in the world among more developed nations. (Some Pacific Island nations rank up near the top on this list, too, but in those cases prevalent genetic factors are at play in addition to lifestyle considerations.)
The question is, is just reducing sugar the answer? After all, drastically reducing fat was at one time thought to be the answer to stemming the obesity tide, and now that notion no longer carries much weight. Fry agrees with many researchers that obesity is a complex phenomenon that does admit to a single, simple answer. But sugar reduction can be a part of the answer and has been shown to help in reducing overall energy intake, he said.
“Alternative sweeteners are not pharmaceuticals. They won’t magically make you thinner (or fatter) and their consumption is not a license to overindulge in energy-dense foods. What they will do, as part of a calorie-controlled diet, is add great taste that makes adherence to that diet easier and more enjoyable,” Fry said.