A Sticky Situation
Think you know what added sugar is? Think again.
Public-health advocates cheered in 2016 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled a new Nutrition Facts panel for packaged foods. It included larger, bolder type, more realistic serving sizes (who eats just ½ cup of cereal?) and, maybe most important, a line to label added sugars—separate from the total sugars—along with their percent daily value. This daily value is based on the guidance that people should limit calories from added sugars to 10 percent of their diet. With the new label, a shopper can easily see that a yogurt, for example, may have 16 grams of added sugar, or 31 percent of the recommended allowance (versus the 16 grams of naturally occurring sugars from milk). The change would bring muchneeded transparency to tens of thousands of products, but complaints from the food industry pushed the compliance date back from July 2018 to January 2020, opening the doors for a heated debate.
Two industries at the forefront of this fray are honey and maple syrup producers. When originally issued in 2016, the label update required that, just like that yogurt, bottles of honey and syrup include an added-sugar line—even though the sugars present are naturally occurring within those products, not added. Naturally these producers were sour on the rule: They worry that consumers would think that pure maple syrup or honey has been adulterated with cheap fillers like high-fructose corn syrup. (As for honey or syrup in a product—that definitely counts as added sugar. No dispute about that.) As a compromise, the FDA proposed that maple syrup and honey producers could add a “” symbol next to the added-sugar line that directs shoppers to a statement, such as “all these sugars are naturally occurring.” A slightly clearer alternative, suggested by the nutrition advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), would read: “This product contains pure maple syrup/honey with no other ingredients.” Producers could also put “100% pure maple syrup” or “100% pure honey” in large, bold letters on the front of the package. The FDA then initiated a comment period (which closed in June) and accumulated over 3,500 responses—many from maple-syrup-producing states. The reactions were overwhelmingly negative. “How stupid is this,” scolded one person. “100% pure maple products come from trees and no sugar is added. Same with honey. Bees and trees do not add sugar. If people do, it is not 100% pure. Get a grip, FDA!” But Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the CSPI, says the rule makes sense because no one eats them in isolation. Maple syrup and honey are added to pancakes, tea, cornbread and so on. “It helps people to see everything that counts as an added sugar in their diet,” Moyer says. With this ruling, you’d see on a bottle of honey that 1 tablespoon has 34 percent of your recommended daily maximum of added sugar. Note: A bag of granulated sugar will also have an added-sugar line. Maple and honey industries aren’t the only ones looking to change the rules. The cranberry industry got bent out of shape by the nutrition label update, and it’s set to get a big pass. The FDA has proposed that cranberry products can add sugar—and not declare it on the label—up to the total amount found in comparable fruits that are naturally sweet, like raisins. Its logic: “Some stakeholders are concerned that consumers may think certain cranberry products are less nutritious than these competitor products because of the added sugars declaration.” Another piece of weirdness found in the proposed added-sugar rule: the inconsistencies around juice used as a sweetener. Juice concentrate in a product (such as fruit drinks, fruit snacks and granola bars), would count as an added sugar, but when sold directly to consumers (think frozen orange juice concentrate), it would not have to list them. The reason: the latter is intended to be reconstituted—you add water to turn it back into 100% juice, which isn’t considered to contain added sugars. In some ways, this stands at odds with the honey and syrup argument of once an added sugar, always an added sugar. And while juice may have nutrients that straight-up sugar doesn’t have, like vitamin C, even 100% juice isn’t as nutritious as whole fruit.
The Future of Added-sugar Labels
At press time, the FDA announced that it would reconsider the maple syrup and honey rule. “Chalk it up to politics,” says Marion Nestle, PH.D., M.P.H., an Eatingwell advisor and professor of nutrition at New York University. But looking at the big picture, she’s optimistic: “Here’s what’s most important to know about sugars: It’s better to eat less of them. So having added sugars on labels at all will be a big step forward.”