The FDA's Idiotic Attack on 'Added' Ingredients

The FDA's growing crackdown on added food ingredients just doesn't add up.


Michelle Obama
Amanda Lucidon / White House

The FDA has a food ingredient most-wanted list. On the list—which I've not seen but am certain exists—are salt, sugar, caffeine, and trans fats. Why the list? These food ingredients are the worst of the worst. The agency's words and actions tell us as much.

List in hand, agency regulators are hard at work hunting down these ingredients and seeking to exorcise them—directly, or through stigmatization—from America's grocery shelves.

I've written thousands of words about the agency's targeting of sugar, caffeine, and trans fats. And there's the FDA's campaign against salt.

But if these agency vendettas share anything besides pervasiveness and zeal, it's that they are total and utter nonsense.

Here's why. First, in each and every case, the FDA has targeted only the direct addition of these ingredients to packaged foods. Second, the impact of the direct addition of these ingredients to packaged foods is exactly the same as in cases where these ingredients occur naturally in food ingredients.

Take the FDA's attack on added caffeine. Last year I wrote that the FDA had announced it would "investigate 'any and all products with added caffeine.'" I also described the history of the FDA's dumbfounding queasiness over "added" caffeine—including its recent ban of a handful of beers like Four Loko that contained added caffeine.

The Four Loko decision was a terrifically stupid and likely illegal action undertaken by the agency. But it illustrates perfectly the FDA's indefensible distinction between "added" caffeine and perfectly legal caffeine.

Why? Because left untouched by the FDA ban were countless beers that contain caffeine but do not contain added caffeine. That includes beers with added coffee, guarana, and other foods and food ingredients that themselves contain caffeine. So "added" in FDA terms means pure caffeine (e.g., powdered caffeine), rather than things that contain caffeine naturally. Even though it's the exact same thing.

In case you're thinking the agency's actions must come down to a question of caffeine levels, they don't. Some beers with pure caffeine added, for example, contained less caffeine than those with coffee or guarana added. The direct addition of caffeine was all that mattered to FDA regulators.

The FDA's campaign against added sugars largely mirrors the agency's attack on caffeine. Take the agency's efforts to slap the words "added sugars" on the Nutrition Facts panels of packaged foods. As I wrote earlier this year, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars (like those in fruit, for example) are "exactly the same substance." Total sugars already appear in the Nutrition Facts panel. And since added sugars are always no greater than total sugars (in a Venn diagram, the former would always reside wholly inside the latter), a label mandating the words "added sugars" tells us nothing other than that the FDA has made them a target.

The Obama administration admits as much.

"You'll also learn where sugar in food comes from—if sugar in yogurt is added during processing or comes from fruits," said First Lady Michelle Obama, who announced the proposed changes earlier this year. "This is a huge deal."

In terms of total sugar content and human health, it's not, I told Reuters earlier this week.

The FDA has increasingly sought to restrict added salt in food, too. "The FDA is proposing a voluntary guideline to lower the amount of sodium food manufacturers add to their products," reported Time earlier this summer.

But some are already suggesting that voluntary limits for added salt (again, distinct from naturally occurring) may not be enough. They recommend set limits for salt content.

The FDA's campaign against trans fats began with the requirement that food manufacturers label the amount of trans fat (above 0.5 g per serving) present in packaged foods.

Some trans fats are manmade, occurring in partially hydrogenated oils. Natural trans fats, on the other hand, occur in some meats and dairy products. Can you guess which group the FDA is seeking to eliminate? Indeed, it's pushing to ban added trans fats only.

The pattern has been repeated enough as to appear obvious. Whether it's with added trans fat or added sugar, salt, or caffeine, the FDA's actions are improper, inconsistent, and indefensible. The FDA's growing crackdown on added food ingredients just doesn't add up.