New FDA Labeling Guidelines Take Aim at Added Sugars

he over consumption of sugar has been linked to higher U.S. obesity and a contributing factor in the diabetics epidemic among ever younger Americans. Even when consumers try to limit the amount of sugar they or their children are consuming, the current nutrition labeling system can make it more difficult than it should be to determine how much sugar is actually in a product.

According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a whopping 61 percent of the food Americans buy is highly processed, with almost 1,000 calories a day of a person’s diet coming solely from highly processed foods. The study also found that highly processed foods were higher in saturated fat, sugar and salt than other purchases.

Under current labeling laws, sugar is measured in grams on nutrition labels, which is also confusing for consumers who may not know exactly what constitutes a gram of sugar. One teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 4 grams of sugar. To put it another way, 16 grams of sugar in a product is equal to about 4 teaspoons of granulated sugar. So many products Americans consume, such as bottled pasta sauce or barbecue sauce, commonly contain 12 grams of sugar, or about 3 teaspoons of sugar.

If you are trying to eat healthy while staying within the recommended daily calorie limit (2,000 per day), added sugars can be a huge issue, particularly when experts say it contributes more than 10 percent of the average persons total daily calories. To combat the “hidden” sugar problem and meet the consumers demand for more clearer labeling, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was tasked in updating the Nutrition Facts label, the first overhaul in 20 years, and to tackle the sticky issue of “added sugars.”

The updated Nutrition Facts label will include the moniker “added sugars.” Under the rules for the old label, manufacturers simply listed the total grams of sugar without distinguishing between sugars that are naturally occurring, such as in fruits and vegetables, and sugars that align with the definition of added sugars that were established in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The FDA issued a draft guidance for industry in February 2017 that was open for public comment. One of the goals in issuing the draft was to clarify the “added sugars” declaration on the label of pure, single-ingredient “packaged as such” products like maple syrup and honey.

The window for public comment has closed and the FDA announced it is planning to issue their final guidance for the updated Nutrition Facts label at the first of 2019 in advance of the January 2020 compliance date. In the draft guidance issued to food manufacturers, the symbol “†” will appear immediately after the “added sugars” on single-ingredient packages and/or containers of pure honey or pure maple syrup and on certain dried cranberry and cranberry juice products.

But manufacturers are concerned that the new labeling rules for single ingredient packages of pure honey or pure maple syrup will lead consumers to misinterpret the “added sugars” declaration to mean that non-endogenous sweeteners, such as corn syrup or cane sugar, have been added to a pure product.

The new rule will also affect the labeling on certain cranberry products. Because cranberries are naturally tart, they contain added sugars to bring the total sugars per serving up to levels comparable to non-cranberry competitor products that contain equivalent amounts of natural total sugars but whose labels list 0 “added sugars.” Manufacturers are worried the new rule will lead consumers to believe that certain cranberry products are less nutritious than competitor products that naturally contain sugar because of the required “added sugars” declaration.

The updated Nutrition Facts label will also contain a new daily value for “added sugars,” so consumers can better understand how foods with added sugars fit into a healthy diet. While “added sugars” declared on the updated Nutrition Facts label include sweeteners added to processed foods, they also include foods that are “packaged as such,” such as a bag of table sugar, a jar of honey or a container of maple syrup.

The new labeling requirements for “packaged as such” products may lead consumers to think a product is pure, such as a jar of honey or maple syrup, when it may actually contain added table sugar or corn syrup because there are “added sugars” listed on the label. The flip side is it may confuse consumers who are, in fact, consuming “pure” honey and maple syrup.

Amina Harris, Director of Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC Davis, takes issue with the new labeling requirement. Harris says, “For the past several months the FDA has been reviewing new Nutrition Labeling Guidelines for all foods. The tentative guideline for honey is of particular concern. The suggested ruling is very confusing requiring natural packaged honey to list both “total sugar” and “added sugar” at 17 grams. The question? How can honey, which is a totally natural product, have sugar added to it? The Answer: It can’t and it doesn’t.”

The National Honey Board presented research to the FDA showing “added sugars” on labels confused consumers and urged beekeepers and packers to advise the FDA that the sugars in honey occur naturally. Requiring commercial honey producers and packers to adhere to this label guideline will confuse food consumers and mislead the public about honey.

The syrup industry is also taking issue with the new FDA labeling rules according to an article in the vtdigger, which reported that, “Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, both Democrats, joined maple syrup producers at Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier to push back against the proposed regulation. The lawmakers say that the labels would misinform consumers and could harm the industry, which does not put additional sugar in its syrup.”

But are these honey and syrup representatives right? Yes and no. Real, unadulterated honey and syrup should not have to comply with an “added sugars” label. The problem is the number of large overseas manufacturers who routinely adulterate both honey and syrup. The vast majority of the major labels of honey sold in the United States are not pure and are mostly produced in China. These products are highly filtered and processed as well as being diluted with high-fructose corn syrup and sweeteners and tainted with chemicals and antibiotics.

Currently, the FDA tests only about 5 percent of imported honey, which makes it easy for China to fool consumers. It seems that rather than the FDA requiring an added sugars caveat to the labels of pure honey and syrup, the government should instead address its poor enforcement on inspections of imported honey in a way that doesn’t hurt manufacturers that provide an unadulterated product.

In 2010, the FDA confiscated $32,000 worth of imported Chinese honey that was contaminated with chloramphenicol.

The import of “fake” honey is a huge problem for the U.S. market. In 2001, Chinese beekeepers experienced an epidemic of the foulbrood disease, which devastates hives. They fought off the disease with strong antibiotics, including chloramphenicol, a carcinogenic antibiotic that is been banned by the FDA.

The new labeling requirements will also contain stricter guidelines for serving sizes and package sizes. Unlike the old labeling law published in 1993, the new labeling requirements must list serving sizes based on the amounts of foods and beverages that people are actually eating or drinking rather than what they should be eating. For example, a serving of ice cream was previously set at half a cup but is changing to two-thirds a cup. The reference amount used to set a serving of soda is changing from 8 ounces to 12 ounces.

We all know that the package size affects what we eat. So for packages that are between one and two servings, such as a 20-ounce soda or a 15-ounce can of soup, the calories and other nutrients will be required to be labeled as one serving.

For certain products that are larger than a single serving but could be consumed in one sitting, such as a pint of ice cream or a 24-ounce bottle of soda, manufacturers will have to provide “dual column” labels to indicate the amount of calories and nutrients on both a per serving and per package/per unit basis.

The war against making added sugars transparent is certainly one that is needed. Fair and honest labeling goes a long way in trying to eliminate the guesswork of exactly how much sugar we are consuming. Many of us are unaware that manufacturers are adding sugar to processed products such as spaghetti sauce, pizza, crackers and other prepared foods, that we might not think contain sugar. Compounding the problem is that sugars are added under many names, including corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, sucrose, trehalose and turbinado sugar.

“Eating certain foods can actually make you hungrier later,” says Joy Post, one of the dietitians for BistroMD. “When you eat certain foods that contain a lot of sugar and carbohydrates, which get broken down into sugar, this sugar gets dumped quite quickly into your bloodstream.

“As a result of this massive intake of carbs, your blood sugar will skyrocket. Your body will then release insulin to help get this sugar inside your cells. Once your blood sugar spikes, it suddenly goes back down to normal, but because it was so ramped up, it can often drop lower than it’s supposed to.

“Your body needs to control blood sugar carefully,” says Joy. “If your body doesn’t have a normal control over blood sugar, you could experience ‘hunger attacks’ out of the blue. This is because certain foods make you hungrier after you eat them.”

For anyone suffering with diabetes or any type of metabolic syndrome, they must be careful to eliminate hidden sugars and reduce their consumption of carbohydrates. Unfortunately, those healthy zoodles you just made with a helping portion of pasta sauce may contain more sugar than you realize.

The zoodles might be healthy, but prepared pasta sauce may contain up to four teaspoons of sugar.

Although many of us wish that we had access to fresh fruits and vegetables not produced on nutritionally deficient corporate farms, we no longer live in an agrarian society. By necessity, our food will be produced primarily by others for profit, but there is room for much improvement and honest and fair labeling goes a long way in informing consumers.

It is also important that we continue to lobby for more healthy and sustainable farming practices that provide food that is nutritionally sound. According to Scientific America, “The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.”

Proposals to promote a healthy diet and to get highly processed foods out of our school system, such as requiring that large school systems produce their own farmed vegetables and fruits on site, is a laudable and sensible goal. Unfortunately, large school systems and corporate contracts represent big money for both the schools and the companies that supply them.

Farm based programs at schools are a great way to teach children nutrition, provide schools with healthy produce and connect children to where their food is actually coming from.

Until consumers and parents demand that corporate-controlled, nutritionally deficient cafeteria food is eliminated, Americans will continue to grow sicker and become less healthy. Although I don’t like that companies that produce pure honey and syrup may be hurt by the new “added sugar” labeling, I think the “added sugars” information will, at the very least, go a long way in helping Americans determine how much sugar they are actually consuming in processed foods.

Under the new labeling regulations, manufacturers will need to use the new label by January 1, 2020. However, manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales will have an additional year to comply.