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Jan Lee headshot

FDA Delays Nutrition Label Sugar Upgrade, Despite Go-Ahead from Manufacturers

By Jan Lee


The stats don't lie, in fact they are pretty compelling: Almost 10 percent, or 30 million Americans have diabetes, and according to the American Diabetes Association, that includes about 7 million "invisible" victims that as of 2015, had yet to be diagnosed. And the culprit that is escalating those numbers, scientists say, is sugar.

Sugar has also been tapped for its role in Alzheimer's. This year two studies, one in the U.S. and one in the UK confirmed a link between Alzheimer's and excess sugar intake, a disease that already affects almost 6 million Americans and whose treatment and care is expected to rise to more than $1 trillion by 2050.

Yet despite these disturbing statistics, this week the Food and Drug Administration ordered a delay to the new nutrition labels that were to provide more transparency on sugar content in packaged foods. Some food manufacturers have complained that they have not had enough time to meet the new requirements, which include detailing how much added sugar is in the product.

But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, implementing labels that provide better transparency of ingredients and nutritional value is an issue that is getting some stiff push back from food manufacturers, which realize consumers will then be able to understand just how much added sugar is going into that "natural" or "wholesome" food.

And let's be clear here: We're not just talking about the white stuff we buy off the grocery shelf. In fact, in many cases the "sugar" that scientists are raising concerns about is far more concentrated that that and comes in forms that the average consumer wouldn't recognize.

According to the University of Calfornia San Francisco's Sugarscience website, there are more than 61 kinds of "sugar" that can appear in manufactured foods. Some we readily recognize as sweetener: high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, cane sugar, beet sugar and barley malt. There are others, though, that we might not expect like lactose, ethyl maltol, Florida crystals and maltodextrin. So giving a clear picture of just how many grams of "sugar" in a given food product can tip the hand when it comes to a manufacturer's actual processing methods.

As UCS science and policy writer Genna Reed points out, delaying the requirement is unnecessary. Some 8,000 products already have the new label. Even more interesting is that Mars and Hershey, two of America's most popular candy companies either already include the information on the label or are rounding the corner in that effort. Mars has also come out in support of World Health Organization's effort to curb sugar intake levels.

Which begs the question: If candy producers aren't afraid to show how much sugar is added to their products, why is a label that is used on foods like breads, meat and canned products more difficult and more controversial to produce?

According to one Frito-Lay representative, the industry take is that more transparent food labels would "overwhelm" consumers and "easily exceed the capacity of the average consumer to understand it." That may say volumes about what some companies think about both the ethical responsibility to inform those who buy their products and the assumed intelligence of the average consumer.

But as Reed points out, the FDA's announcement to delay the labels is also a troubling indication of just how little public comment, including from health experts, can play in the agency's decision-making. More than 90 percent of the comments that contributed to the label's original formation were from public health experts supporting the new label information.

"The majority of unique comments supported the rule," said Reed.

A new 30-day comment period will begin Oct. 2. UCS says it plans to be vigorous in "weighing in" on the importance of the more transparent labels.

In the meantime, large food manufacturers (those with more than $10 million in annual sales) will have until Jan. 1, 2020 to meet the requirements. Smaller companies will have longer: until Jan. 1, 2021 to comply. The reason for why companies with smaller production volume need more time isn't clear, but like the above example of companies that have surged ahead on this measure, it does prompt questions about whether the delay is needed or again, simply a push back against compliance and transparency.

Flickr image: Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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