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The FDA’s ‘Added Sugar’ Labeling Rule Is Sugar-Coated Nonsense

What exactly does an "added sugar" label tell us that the existing total sugar label does not? Nothing worthwhile.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/NewscomBRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/NewscomThe FDA announced last week that it had decided not to require producers of sugar, honey, or maple syrup to label their products as containing "added sugar," under the agency's ongoing implementation of rules finalized in 2016 under then-Pres. Obama.

As the FDA explained in its announcement, requiring makers of foods that contain no added sugars to state otherwise could "inadvertently lead consumers to think their pure products, such as a jar of honey or maple syrup, may actually contain added table sugar or corn syrup because there are 'added sugars' listed on the label."

You think?

Indeed, forcing makers of maple syrup or honey, which contain no added sugars, to lie and claim their foods do contain added sugars never made any sense. Still, the reversal of course comes after the FDA took some months to ponder its baffling opinion that added sugars include both the obvious (sugars added to food) and the tortured (sugars "packaged as such," whatever that means).

"In one way it makes no sense at all," wrote Patrick Clinton of the New Food Economy (where I also contribute), in a piece on the FDA's "added sugar" label this summer. "But in another way it reveals a lot about the Regulatory Mind."

Which is to say, regulators and regulations often make no sense at all.

In his announcement last week, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb defended the "added sugar" label as "empowering consumers with accurate and science-based information to help them make more informed, healthier choices." Nope. It turns out the FDA's requirement that food makers include an "added sugar" designation on others foods that do contain added sugar doesn't make any sense, either.

First off, the FDA has required a food product's amount of total sugar per serving to appear on food labels for decades. But the creation of an "added sugar" label was one of the signature food-policy changes championed several years ago by then-First Lady Michelle Obama, who dubbed the label "a huge deal." It was a huge deal, the White House boasted in 2016, because the added sugar label will—wait for it—"help consumers know how much sugar is added to the product."

Despite that underwhelming tautology, supporters of the "added sugar" label clamored for its arrival. The Center for Science in the Public Interest characterized the "added sugar" label as "critical information [consumers] need to make decisions," while some food companies have adopted the labels ahead of any formal deadline and want the FDA to force their competitors to do the same.

But what exactly does an added sugar label tell us that the existing total sugar label does not? Nothing worthwhile. As I've written time and again, the whole premise behind the "added sugar" label itself is flawed and misleading.

First and foremost, it's deeply confusing. The current, accurate, and appropriate requirement to list total sugars per serving includes any and all sugars that occur naturally in a food (e.g., those in a fruit that is itself an ingredient in a food) plus any sugar (e.g. cane sugar) that's added by the food manufacturer. The new requirement to also list added sugar seemingly exalts some high-sugar foods that contain no added sugar (such as orange juice) while stigmatizing foods with added sugar that may contain far less total sugar than that same orange juice.

If a person is trying to reduce the amount of sugar they consume, which of these hypothetical foods is healthiest?

  • Food X contains 15g total sugar, including 0g naturally occurring sugar and 15g added sugar.
  • Food Y contains 43g total sugar, including 43g naturally occurring sugar and 0g added sugar.
  • Food Z contains 35g total sugar, including 26g naturally occurring sugar and 9g added sugar.

For a person who's limiting their sugar intake, the food with the most "added sugar"—Food X—is the least unhealthy choice, because it contains the smallest amount of total sugar. The food with no added sugar at all—Food Y—is clearly that person's worst option of the three, because it has the most sugar overall. But forcing food makers to include an "added sugar" label would, in the above scenario, likely steer a person away from the least unhealthy option. How can anyone possibly call that good policy?

As I wrote in a 2014 column, the FDA's stigmatization of "added sugar" is part of a larger agency campaign to paint a laundry list of food ingredients that are added to processed foods as the enemy. FDA regulators, I wrote, "are hard at work hunting down these ingredients and seeking to exorcise them—directly, or through stigmatization—from America's grocery shelves."

I support the FDA's requirement that food makers who sell across state lines label any and all ingredients that appear in packaged foods. And I accept the FDA's requirement that food makers also provide consumers with information about the nutrition contents of foods via a nutrition-facts label. But I neither support nor accept an added sugar label that serves to mislead, confuse, and cause potential harm to consumers.

Photo Credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • SQRLSY One||

    Cigarettes contain NATURALLY OCCURRING nicotine in the NATURAL tobacco that they are made of, so the nicotine has been naturally made my Momma Nature and Gaia, and so it's all good...

    E-cigs fluids (you heathen vapers ye!) contain UNNATURALLY ADDED nicotine, so they are BAD for you!!!!

    This example illustrates the scientific principles at hand here!

  • Schu||

    Except for the sugar they soak the tobacco in to make it sweeter to smoke it...

  • SQRLSY One||

    "Here in the U.S., ads for organic cigarettes aren't banned, but after a 1997 lawsuit, American Spirit was forced to put a disclaimer on its site and ads that says, "Organic tobacco does not mean a safer cigarette." And, "No additives in our tobacco does not mean a safer cigarette.""

    (From a Google search's out-takes on search { "no additives" cigarettes } )

    Not BSing now... The real McCoy! I had a college-educated man (an EE, an Electrical Engineer) once sincerely explain to me that the tobacco in the cigarettes was OK, it was all the ADDITIVES that are bad for you!!!

    Well yes, if it wasn't for idiots, there would be no appeal to marketing for "Organic American Spirit" coffin nails... Of course, they are going to ignore that warning labels, and believe what they want to believe...

  • Don't look at me.||

    Why do you care what other people do?
    Control freak.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Well no, as long as "other people" don't shit on me or "other, other people", I don't care.

    If I were to summarize 3 points here they would be:

    '1) Government Almighty regulation or lawsuits (or better yet, Government Almighty regulation of PRIVATE agencies like the Underwriter's Labs, that do the certification) is-are actually needed to prevent fraud. Don't tell me it's protein in my food, when it's really a poison called melamine, which fools the tests into reporting amino acids, the sub-units that make up protein. Honest labelling / reporting is needed, to prevent fraud.

    '2) But fer Chrissakes, can we make the regulations or laws PLAIN LANGUAGE and LOGICAL? Not stupid?!?

    '3) Too much regulation about labels etc., is a waste of time, because people will believe what they want to believe, anyway... So don't waste my tax dollars on TOO MUCH labeling regs!!!

  • Echospinner||

    That is correct. The additives in cigarettes are there to enhance flavor, moisture, nicotine delivery and other things but do not contribute to the known health risks so far as I can find. There are hundreds of carcinogens and toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke.

    Nicotine is not a carcinogen. It is addictive.

    E cigs use glycerin and propolyne glycol as the solvent. Both are approved for use as food additives. Thus far research has shown that they are far less toxic than tobacco cigarettes. Many smokers, including almost all that I know, who have failed quitting by other methods have switched to vaping.

    https://tinyurl.com/yc7nj923

  • vek||

    I quit using vaping. It is a VERY easy way to quit, and seems to work for most people that have failed other ways. As far as the health of it, you can FEEL the difference. My lungs/nose/breathing improved massively immediately. Most other people feel the same.

  • vek||

    The reality is, we don't KNOW if the additives make smokes worse or not. All the studies surrounding smoking are so politicized it's insane.

    If you look through even the mainstream studies, their own evidence shows that at under a pack a day the health problems drop off like a rock... Once you get below half a pack a day, the negative repercussions are basically a rounding error. Yet you never hear anybody say this, despite it being in their own numbers. They refuse to look at the data, and even recommend any harm reduction strategies. If they said "Hey, if you're gonna be a dumb ass and smoke, keeping it to half a pack or day or less will probably save your life!" that would make sense... But they won't.

    So even if studies were done, and they showed additives DID negatively contribute in some way, like increased cancer 25% over natural cigs, they would NEVER mention it to anybody. Not saying that IS the case, but it may well be. I don't see how adding in more chemicals to an already bad mix of chemicals is likely to improve things, just from a standpoint of obvious logic.

  • Sebastian Cremmington||

    Those sugar coated cigars at the convenience store are for marijuana.

  • Agammamon||

    That's not how sugar works.

  • Schu||

    I agree, total sugar is most important, but it's still a useful shaming device. Sugar is the devil.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Except when you feed it to yeast, which in turn feed us good booze!

  • sarcasmic||

    Being lactose intolerant I have a habit of reading ingredients.

    One thing I've noticed is that a lot of products that claim to have "no added sugar" have white grape juice as one of the primary ingredients.

  • sarcasmic||

    White grape juice that can be converted into 20% alcohol by yeast. That's a lot of sugar.

  • Juice||

    Pear juice is another one.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    This proves, I should think, that if you assume that any dietary advice you get from the government is complete bushwa, you won't be wrong often enough to matter.

  • ||

    We mostly ignore what the government says about food at our daycare.

    Like a bureaucrat knows more about food than my mother. Yeah right.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    It also proves that most people are idiots.

  • JFree||

    It doesn't much matter who the misleading originates from. As long as the 'food' we eat is made and processed by someone else, then we will all ultimately become obese morons. Livestock basically.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    So, wait, explain please why maple syrup and honey can be thought of has having ANY added sugar and needing it listed on the sugar-added label.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    OK, now I've answered my own question, and it really is bizarre bureaucratic bungling. It's in the Patrick Clinton link in the fifth paragraph and it really must be read to (not) comprehend. It's in the same vein as caffeine not being "added" if it's in the form of coffee but yes added if it's powdered, or sugar in jelly not being added because jelly has to have sugar to be labeled "jelly" whereas maple syrup can't have sugar added to be labeled "maple syrup", so it's natural sugar content has to be labeled as "added sugar".

    Really, just read Patrick Clinton's article. It's mind boggling. No summary can do it justice.

  • SQRLSY One||

    If you are a lawyer or a regulator, the purpose of education is to drive OUT the twin demons of "logic" and "plain language".

    Period!

  • Rich||

    Thanks for emphasizing Clinton's link, S. It is truly, um, interesting reading.

    Jelly has to have added sugar, so it doesn't have to declare any added sugar; maple syrup isn't allowed to have added sugar, so it has to declare its entire content as added sugar.

    Another aspect of the labeling BS is the notion of "serving". What a great job(s) being paid to determine that a "serving" of potato chips is "About 15 crisps"! 8-(

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Clinton does make the point that our nannies are not thinking only of the sugar added to a food item we might buy, but the sugar we might add to a combined food before we stuff it in our pie holes. In their paternalistic thinking, we are better served if they conflate sugar added to something with sugar added by that same thing.

    At least until they can regulate how much maple syrup we can put on our waffles.

  • ||

    Gee, that's two health stories Obama had a hand in..

    Which means you can safely ignore it and Trump should over turn.

    What an incoherent mess Barry left behind.

  • Mark22||

    For a person who's limiting their sugar intake, the food with the most "added sugar"—Food X—is the least unhealthy choice, because it contains the smallest amount of total sugar.

    Naturally occurring sugar often is released and/or absorbed slowly, while added sugar usually is not.

    Yes, "added sugar" is a useful piece of information.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    [citation needed] None of these articles mention that as a mitigating factor. If that were true and significant, I'd think it would be trumpeted loudly all over the place.

    Then there's the distinction between natural and added sugar. Sugar in nature comes in many varieties. What distinguishes the many natural varieties from the presumably many added varieties?

    If a company adds apple juice to a bottle of fruit juice, any normal person might call that added, but it's not per the FDA regulations; whereas if I add concentrate of apple juice, that does count as added sugar. What is the chemical difference which tells the body to absorb the two at different rates?

  • JFree||

    What distinguishes the many natural varieties from the presumably many added varieties?

    Hydroxymethlyfurfural. It's a compound that forms in dehydrating sugars starting at about 120F. Natural sugars from living things don't spend any time above that temp until they are cooked. Nor do any other species cook their food before eating. Industrial sugars do and the chemicals used to process the fake sugars (like high fructose cs) seem to accelerate its formation when heated further and for longer. It's not toxic to humans (is to bees) but it's not healthy either. And 120F is a low temp.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    None of these articles mention that as a mitigating factor. If that were true and significant, I'd think it would be trumpeted loudly all over the place.

    It's something you will hear in every consultation with a competent nutritionist. It's thoroughly tested, and not controversial. Omitting it would probably be nutritionist malpractice. Maybe the problem is with "these articles."

  • SQRLSY One||

    If you're interested in a sugar that is digested more slowly than others, please see trehalose, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trehalose ...

    Some people claim health benefits; I can't say one way or another, it's all a guessing game. I put it in my coffee. It's better than regular sugar for people with diabetes. Others warn as below...

    http://www.sciencealert.com/co.....-trehalose

    A Common Sugar Additive Might Be Driving The Rise of One of The Most Aggressive Superbugs

    I have used trehalose for years w/o troubles...

  • Morbo||

    Naturally occurring sugar often is released and/or absorbed slowly, while added sugar usually is not.

    Yes, "added sugar" is a useful piece of information.

    No, not at all. What causes sugar to be absorbed more slowly is the presence of fiber, such as the fiber found in eating whole fruits. If there is no fiber, such as in most fruit juices, the sugar is absorbed just as fast as if it were added sugar.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    After you mention the exception for fiber, and omit another exception for protein, that ends up as a pretty peculiar, "No, not at all."

  • MJBinAL||

    No it peculiar at all.

    If you mix fiber together with sugar, the sugar will absorb slowly because of the fiber. This is true even though the sugar is "added". It has absolutely nothing to do with "natural" and everything to do with fiber content.

    No, "added sugar" is not a useful piece of information.

  • MJBinAL||

    No it's not peculiar at all.

    If you mix fiber together with sugar, the sugar will absorb slowly because of the fiber. This is true even though the sugar is "added". It has absolutely nothing to do with "natural" and everything to do with fiber content.

    No, "added sugar" is not a useful piece of information.

  • Rich||

    As the FDA explained in its announcement, requiring makers of foods that contain no added sugars to state otherwise could "inadvertently lead consumers to think their pure products, such as a jar of honey or maple syrup, may actually contain added table sugar or corn syrup because there are 'added sugars' listed on the label."

    This is why those FDA bureaucrats pull down the big bucks.

  • Sevo||

    OT, but too good to pass up.
    Probably you didn't know there was a "Climate Change Summit" in SF this week, a summit with such luminaries as moonbeam, algore. Kerry (who warned us all the time is near!), the mayor of Paris, and assorted imbeciles whining about 'KKKorparate GREED!' A "Summit" in the minds of self-righteous twits.
    Well, moonbeam signed a bunch of legislation subsidizing all sorts of feel-good electric things, and then capped it off with:
    "California Gov. Jerry Brown to launch satellite to track greenhouse gas emissions"
    [...]
    ""With science still under attack, we're going to launch ... our own damn satellite, to figure out where the pollution is," Brown said."
    https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/
    california-gov-jerry-brown-launch-satellite
    -track-greenhouse-gas-emissions-n909811

    Moonbeam ain't know as moonbeam for nothing...

  • perlchpr||

    And then they discover that LA is the problem, which anyone could have just told them.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I can't believe this hurricane hit and Trump didn't do anything to stop it.

  • Longtobefree||

    It is a blatant attempt to suppress the black vote in the Carolinas; Diane and Nancy said that someone somewhere said so. That will be used as grounds for impeachment.

  • Number 2||

    I have it from an anonymous source that Bret Kavanaugh uttered a Hurricane Curse when he was in second grade!

  • Rat on a train||

    Cheney won't share his weather control device.

  • IceTrey||

    C'mon how am I supposed to know if there is added sugar in the 5 pound bag of sugar I just bought?

  • gphx||

    There's a similar amount of carbohydrates in a can of Coke, a glass of orange juice, and a bowl of pasta. The human pancreas doesn't discriminate whether the carbohydrates are added or inherent. Carbs are carbs. And all carbs start breaking down into sugars upon contact with saliva. The than a little vitamin C, fiber, and protein, the body treats them all pretty much the same with the same impact on blood sugar levels.

    An even dumber thing is 'low calorie'. The only real reason people buy food is for the stored energy measured in calories. To pay more for 'low calorie' is like paying the gas station more to give you less fuel. If you want to eat less calories don't buy 'styrofood', just drink a big glass of water before a meal so your stomach will more quickly get full. The styrofood will just cause you to eat three times as much for three times the price.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    The human pancreas doesn't discriminate whether the carbohydrates are added or inherent.

    Whether or not that is true as a matter of physiology I cannot guess. But any competent nutritionist will tell you that your glycemic response to a particular amount of carbohydrate varies notably depending on the totality of the food which contains it. Metabolically, sugar in a carrot and sugar in a Coke are not the same. Eating x grams of carbohydrate in white bread will spike your blood sugar more than the same x grams of carbohydrate in pizza with cheese and a whole grain crust. Nutritionists tell me that adding protein and fiber slows glycemic response, and reduces peak blood sugar levels.

    If you want a terrific source of carbohydrate while aiming to keep your blood sugar down, try beans. You get so much protein and fiber in the mix that a bowl of chili with meat may barely budge your blood sugar (your mileage may vary).

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    The OP seems deliberately obtuse. The policy aim is exactly to stigmatize the practice of adding sugar to foods which naturally contain less of it. That would, without question, improve public health. It would allow consumers to choose more readily, and with less confusion, which processed foods they wish to avoid, because they disapprove of manufacturers' tactics to boost sales by adding sugar.

    Without the added sugar label, consumers are left to puzzle whether their preferences are being manipulated in other ways—for instance, by playing games with packaged amounts, or serving sizes—both quantities completely within the control of the manufacturer. Those can be adjusted at will to produce labeling results a manufacturer prefers. A manufacturer's preference could be, and often would be, to use unlike sizes to obstruct comparison of its own product with that of a leading competitor, or to tout a spurious health advantage—while continuing use of added sugar as a marketing tool.

    The OP shows a malign tendency in libertarianism—an ideologically motivated impulse to oppose helpful government activity, apparently for no reason except that allowing beneficial government policy outcomes undercuts public support for smaller government. That may be the libertarian preference in every case, no matter the cost. But advocating bad policy for the purpose of discrediting government is no way to sell ideology to bystanders.

  • macsnafu||

    When labels get mysterious and confusing, you know what happens? Consumers will just ignore the labels and make purchases based upon other info or reasons. There is absolutely no point in labeling that doesn't tell consumers something simple and meaningful.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    And detailing added sugar is simple, and heavily freighted with meaning.

  • MJBinAL||

    false meaning, but meaning

  • vek||

    This is a kinda dumb rule of course, but it is obvious their intent. If you wanted to buy juice, you don't know what the baseline for saaay apple juice is. If one has added sugar, and another doesn't it can theoretically knock 2 seconds off the decision making process. If a store doesn't have a no added sugar variant of apple juice, you'd never know that they all added sugar, because total sugar only wouldn't inform you of this. If it did label added sugar, you would know to check the juice at another store for one with no added sugar. So there is a minor utility in there if the law wasn't implemented/worded in a non retarded way.

    It's a small and more or less pointless thing either way. As far as things go, I'm not SUPER against labeling laws in principle though. I think of them as pro-active anti fraud laws, and fraud is a no go even in libertopia. I don't think the current set of laws regarding labeling or disclaimers for other products necessarily make a ton of sense, but more sanely written ones aren't the worst thing in the history of the universe.

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