Food groups seethe over ‘added sugar’ on labels

Food groups seethe over ‘added sugar’ on labels
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Food groups are up in arms over a new regulation being reviewed by the White House that would require the listing of added sugars on nutrition labels.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2014 proposed that food producers be required to disclose on their labels when sugar is added to a product, though not the specific amounts.

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But the agency changed course in July, proposing to require a “daily value” for added sugar that lists a percentage.

The Sugar Association is denouncing the agency for its turnaround, arguing there is not enough scientific evidence to justify the requirement.

“Fast forward 16 months, and now there’s a percent daily value,” said Courtney Gaine, the association’s president and CEO. “The way they’ve added the added sugar proposal is a deviation from the factors they consider when making labeling decisions.”

Gaine said the FDA has to be able to prove a public health link between a nutrient and a disease and some sort of quantitative number that is based on science before setting a percent daily value for a product ingredient. 

The FDA said it added the value after the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued a recommendation — now part of the final federal guidelines — that Americans limit their added sugar intake to less than 10 percent of their total daily calories. Critics say that amount was solely based on intake estimates and not sound science.

Aside from their complaints about the process, food companies like General Mills argue the FDA’s rule will confuse consumers. It won’t be clear, they say, that the extra number for added sugars is part of the total sugar count, not in addition to it.

“Consumer research conducted by General Mills, FDA and the International Food Information Council has consistently shown that the declaration of ‘added sugar’ decreases consumer understanding of the total sugar content of a product, and shows that the proposed nutrition label format changes offer no clear advantage to the current format,” the company said in a statement. 

“We have encouraged FDA to conduct additional consumer research on the totality of the proposed label changes and formats before issuing their final rule.”

Attorneys are already anticipating legal challenges to the regulation now under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

“It’s critical for rules like this that OMB be able to make sure all the procedures were followed and there’s enough scientific evidence to support it,” said Glenn Lammi, chief counsel of legal studies at the Washington Legal Foundation, a free-market-oriented public interest group. “Challenges filed against the rule may be successful if OMB’s not certain about that.”

Lammi said the FDA failed to give industry enough time to comment on the proposed rule or review the methodology used in reports on how consumers would benefit.

“I think there certainly are enough entities directly affected that might be willing to challenge this,” he said.  

It’s the stigma the agency is trying to attach to sugar, -Lammi said, that has groups willing to fight.

“This country through government policy has had a fascination with one nutrient being the boogeyman of nutrition problems,” he said. “If it wasn’t fats it was carbohydrates, but all those efforts haven’t necessarily reduced the level of obesity in this country. We’re worried consumer will cut out added sugars and won’t necessarily become more healthy.”

Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and American Heart Association spokeswoman, said settled science clearly shows that consuming a lot of sugar is associated with adverse health effects including, hypertension, heart disease, obesity and obesity-related cancers.

“It is my view and the view of the American Heart Association that the amount of added sugars in a product is important information for consumers to have,” she said.

According to the FDA, 13 percent of the average American’s total daily calories come from added sugars now.

“For the past decade, experts have advised consumers to reduce their intake of added sugars because they contribute empty calories to the diet, and the proposed new label information supports that advice,” the agency said in a statement. “If finalized, consumers would see the same information on the Nutrition Facts Label for added sugars that they have seen for other nutrients such as saturated fat and sodium.”

FDA said it would not speculate on when the final rule might be issued.