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Labeling Added Sugars: Sweet Idea or Bitter Pill?

Sugar is sugar, right? Wrong, according to the government.

There is sugar and then there’s “added sugar,” which is the same as sugar. But, despite FDA delays in implementation of new food labeling rules, it eventually will be required to be labeled differently even though there’s no way to detect or distinguish it in most products. There are a few exceptions, such as honey, in which tests can pinpoint added sugars, but for the most part, there’s a giant shrug from the scientific community when asked how to identify added sugar.

This begs an obvious question: If there’s no scientific way to distinguish added sugar, why would government require that it be separately listed on the nutrition panel when sugar is already listed there?

The answer is twofold: intense pressure and increased public interest in the link between diet and health.

Pressure from consumer advocates is reshaping many aspects of food and agriculture, sometimes indirectly through regulatory changes and sometimes through direct pressure on food producers and retailers.

The developments around added sugar illustrate lost social license. Social license is the privilege to operate with minimal formalized restrictions – laws, regulations, policies – based on maintaining the public’s trust. In this case, sugar’s social license was clipped by the new requirement to separately list added sugar on nutrition labels, despite its composition and nutritional value being identical to sugar, because sugar came under scrutiny without effective engagement by the food system.

The public is increasingly interested in the relationship between diet and health. Unfortunately, instead of a holistic approach, some advocates look for easy targets. After all, every good story needs a villain, a victim and a hero.

Let’s face it, sugar makes an easy villain because we understand the growing challenges of obesity, and it’s easy to visualize the role of sugar. The victims in this storyline are overweight Americans, and the heroes are the advocates who insist labeling added sugar is a critical piece to solve the obesity puzzle.

Stop there. Do they take consumers for fools?

The way their argument goes, consumers are too ignorant to know whether sugar content is high or low based on total grams alone.

Including “added sugars” muddies the waters, as seen in recent consumer interviews on the new label rule conducted by The Center for Food Integrity. There’s confusion about what added sugar even is, and some consumers would actually choose a product with twice as much sugar to avoid “added sugars” because they’re not sure if it’s good for their health. This from a label designed to promote healthier choices.

The confusion around the label might have been avoided had farmers, processors and food companies engaged more actively in a dialogue with consumers about what added sugars are and aren’t. Understandably, they thought science was on their side and would prevail. It didn’t.

It’s highly questionable whether the noble pursuit of better health outcomes and lower obesity rates will be achieved through this added regulation. Yet, there is no question it presents a conundrum for food producers, who are scratching their heads to figure out how to verify the level of something added to a product that is scientifically indistinguishable in many cases from what’s already in the product.

Let’s be honest for a moment about “natural” sugar, which is found in fruit and milk. This sugar consists of the same carbohydrates as the evil added sugar. The difference is not in the sugar, but rather the other good stuff in fruit and milk, such as protein, vitamins and calcium.

So, is added sugar the real villain? What if we were to completely change the narrative and get rid of the villains and victims? What if we were to do something crazy like engage in an honest, ongoing conversation with consumers about the importance of balanced diets and exercise in a healthy lifestyle?

Providing information about all ingredients in a way that’s easy to understand and contributes to informed decisions is important. When information falls short of that goal, farmers and food companies would be well-served to engage in a more meaningful dialogue with consumers and those who are making the rules.

As originally published in Food Processing on October 13, 2017.