August 1 was the deadline for public comment on Food and Drug Administration proposals for updating the Nutrition Facts panel on food packaging. One of the changes, listing the amount of added sugars, has generated the most conflict between nutrition experts and the food industry.
In general, those in favor of listing added sugars cite the public’s right to know how many extra empty calories are present in foods. Those opposed say sugar is sugar and it doesn’t make any difference where it comes from.
Public right to know
The FDA agrees with the argument that once it gets into the body, sugar is sugar, whether it occurs naturally in food or gets added during processing. However, in a statement the agency said listing added sugars could “help individuals identify foods that are nutrient dense within calorie limits and aid in reducing excess calorie intake from added sugars.”
Sugar and chronic disease
Among the comments submitted to the FDA, organizations such as the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists agree with the agency’s position.
They point out that research has established a clear link between overconsumption of sugar and diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. Because most food and beverage manufacturers rely on sugar to make their processed products appealing—even those marketed as healthy choices—consumers are largely in the dark about how much sugar their eating, as well as how much sugar they could be avoiding.
Food industry spin
Among the arguments submitted from food industry spin doctors, The Sugar Association says added sugars make healthy foods “palatable,” thus encouraging consumers to choose them over junk foods with added sugars. But the most creative smokescreen may have come from the American Bakers Association, which filed a 31-page comment containing such whoppers as the claim that listing added sugars would be “false and misleading” because sugar is sugar, whether it occurs naturally or as an industrial chemical such as high fructose corn syrup.
The science isn’t conclusive in regard to how the body metabolizes the fructose calories occurring in an apple vs. the fructose calories poured into factory cauldrons from 50-gallon drums. But when it comes to calories the food industry is intentionally clouding the issue. In reality, when sugar is added to products purely for marketing purposes, calories completely devoid of nutrients are consumed that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Food industry fear
One change suggested, but not proposed by the FDA for the Nutrition Facts panel is listing a Daily Value for added sugars. The AHA suggests a limit of no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for women and no more than 150 calories per day (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams of sugar) for men. The food industry’s biggest fear could be that listing added sugars will make following the AHA’s advice too easy.
Under the status quo, even checking the ingredients list on most packaged foods, where “sugar” usually appears near the top, doesn’t tell you how much sugar is really there. To hide added sugars, food companies include multiple forms of sugar individually in the ingredients list. This tactic allows sugars to be listed separately in smaller amounts, making it difficult for consumers to figure out the total sugar content.
Common food label listings for sugar:
agave nectar brown sugar cane crystals
cane sugar corn sweetener corn syrup
crystalline fructose dextrose evaporated cane juice
fructose fruit juice concentrates glucose
high fructose corn syrup honey invert sugar
Harvard School of Public Health