(This blog post by Gretchen Goldman was published July 1, 2014, at blog.ucsusa.org and is reposted here with permission.) Last week, I spoke at the FDA public meeting on Proposed Rules on Food Labeling: Nutrition Facts Label and Serving Size. I spoke in support of an added sugars label in those proposed rules, carrying with me the support of 170-plus medical, public health, and nutrition experts, 600-plus scientists and other technical experts, and an additional 23,000-plus citizens. Given past efforts by sugar interests to obscure the science on sugar and health, I knew to expect some unsubstantiated claims. Sure enough, listening to other stakeholders provide comments, I heard statements in need of correcting. Actors with interests in sugar — including the Sugar Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Frozen Foods Institute — made the inaccurate claims listed below at the FDA public meeting. Notably, trade associations were the ones doing the talking, even though several companies, including General Mills, Kraft and PepsiCo, had representatives quietly attend the meeting. Let’s set the record straight on the following five misstatements: 1. Falsely claiming the science doesn’t exist. Sugar interests — including the Sugar Association and the American Frozen Foods Institute — claimed there is no science linking sugar to adverse health impacts. Sugar Association President Andrew Briscoe asserted that, “There is no preponderance of evidence” to justify an added sugar label. Actually, it is quite the contrary. Scientific studies are increasingly showing that sugar overconsumption is a major contributing factor to the rising risks of metabolic syndrome, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lipid abnormalities and hypertension. Several scientific and health authorities — from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the American Heart Association (AHA) to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) — have studied and made recommendations for limiting our sugar consumption. At the FDA public meeting last week, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health Professor Frank Hu reiterated this point. “There is compelling evidence,” he stated, that sugar consumption is linked to adverse health effects and that Americans’ sugar consumption should be curbed. 2. Red herrings: Overlooking the core, established science motivating FDA In its comments, the Grocery Manufacturers Association was quick to claim that there is no differing physiological effect for added vs. naturally present sugar, and, thus, no reason to treat added sugar differently on labels. This argument is an odd one because it isn’t relevant to the main point. Whether or not our bodies process added sugar differently, the issue at hand is overconsumption. The average American consumes 20 teaspoons of sugar per day (20!)  — more than twice the amounts recommended by WHO, AHA and DGA. Do they think we are consuming 20 teaspoons of sugars-worth of fruit? Of course not. This overconsumption — and its associated health impacts — are coming from the sugars added to our foods; therefore, this is the sugar we need to focus on in our policies, starting with a label. 3. Shifting responsibility to consumers Speakers claimed there is no evidence that an added sugar label will change consumers’ behavior. And, recently, a letter from six trade associations to FDA made a similar argument in an effort to delay the proposed rules. More generally, shifting responsibility to the consumer to worry about their own “energy balance” and exercise routine is a common strategy by sugar interests (for example, check out the advice of the food industry’s Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness). Cereals An important point to be made here is that labeling can be effective in ways beyond consumer behavior change. Let’s take the example of trans fats. In 2003, FDA issued a rule requiring the labeling of trans fats on the Nutrition Facts label in response to scientific evidence of a trans fat link to heart disease. Following the enactment of this rule, CDC observed a 58-percent decrease in blood levels of trans-fatty acids in white adults in the U.S. population. This public health success story was attributed to consumer behavior change, but also to changes in food processing. In response to the new labeling requirement, food manufacturers began innovating new ways to formulate foods with minimal or no use of trans fats, rather than be required to disclose trans fat content, a move that manufacturers might have feared could lead to lower sales. Similarly, requiring manufacturers to declare how much sugar they added to foods could motivate the industry to re-think its sugar-heavy products. 4. Claiming unfounded technical challenges “There is no way to measure added sugar,” claimed the Grocery Manufacturers Association. I know. This argument sounds absurd, and, in some ways, it is. What is meant by sugar interests here is that there is no established methodology for measuring added sugar content in foods because this hasn’t been required before. But, you might ask, don’t companies know how much sugar they are putting in foods? Indeed, they should. There are some additional considerations for foods affected by fermentation, as this would impact sugar content; however, FDA is aware of this, and the agency has accounted for this and other factors with built-in flexibility in the rule for these special cases. 5. Speculating paperwork The Sugar Association president asserted that an added sugar label would require food manufacturers to keep new records on “thousands of products.” “Unprecedented record-keeping,” echoed a representative from OFW Law, which represents food industry interests. As far as I can tell, this argument is completely fabricated. Unsurprisingly, food manufacturers already must keep records on the content and production process of foods. Requiring added sugar measurement isn’t expected to add to this record-keeping load. In the Q&A session of last week’s public meeting, FDA validated this when a representative from the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked agency staff whether an added sugars rule would require food manufacturers to keep additional records. FDA representatives replied, “We do not anticipate that the proposed rule on added sugars will require food manufacturers to keep any additional records beyond records they currently keep.” This is in stark contrast to the claims of the above commenters. Following the science on added sugar FDA is taking written public comments on the proposed rules until Aug. 1. Would you like to see FDA stand up to the above misstatements? Me, too. Join us in support of an added sugar declaration on the Nutrition Facts label. After the public comment period ends, we will wait and see if FDA ultimately follows the science on added sugar and our health.

  • mjv64

    Not only there should be an added sugar label, there should be an added artificial sweetener label as well

  • grifty

    One thing I just don’t understand in our education system: Why don’t we teach kids how to read a food label? WHY?

  • Sad to see, also, that little is being said about the Glycemic Load of foods! Most of the cereals that are shown above are EXTREMELY HIGH GLYCEMIC!! They get converted into sugar in the blood incredibly quickly!

  • Information barriers in the food industry, like all other industries, prohibit consumers from making good decisions. Moreover, misinformation is sometimes worse than no information at all; for example, if there were no food labels it may force consumers to better monitor their bodies reaction to certain foods. However, a label on a diet soda as “sugar free” or bag of chips that says “gluten free” deludes the public into thinking what they are consuming is healthy. Any system of rules or regulations will ultimately be gamed by big businesses like the Sugar Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Frozen Foods Institute. It is up to consumers and advocates to constantly scrutinize food labeling standards and force them to grow and evolve.

  • Robert Owen

    The REAL problem with this label is that there is no value for %DV for sugar.
    The fact that there isn’t tells me that those that support the new label aren’t fully committed to informing the consumer, it’s little more than an half-hearted attempt to appease nutrition advocates – and nutrition advocates should know better!

    The World Health Organization says that 25 grams of sugar is about the maximum daily allowance. Drink a can of soda or have an ice cream cone, a piece of pie or a glass of juice and you’ve already exceeded you’re daily recommended dose.

    In addition, since carbohydrates when digested are broken down into sugars, I think there should be an “Effective Sugar” content listing for carbs in addition to the Sugar listing.

    Look – you wanna know how much sugar you’re actually getting from swallowing the stuff in the package. These guys want you to swallow what they put on the label as meaningful information. Caveat Emptor.