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The crucial FDA nutrition label battle you probably don’t know about, but should

FDA added sugars
The devil is in the details. (FDA)

At the beginning of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made an announcement. For the first time in more than a decade, the FDA was mulling over making significant changes to the Nutrition Facts label (pdf) found on just about every food item sitting on grocery store shelves around the nation. More than five months later, the agency is still hearing vehement support from a number of advocacy groups and vicious dissent from several major food associations, and much of it is about one subtle but crucial proposed addition: an "added sugar" label.

The labeling (as pictured and pointed to above), is meant to communicate how much of any given food's sugar content wasn't in the food before it was produced and packaged. The FDA proposed the addition because, simply put, the American diet has become too saturated in sugar, and sugar, as it turns out, is too often added, rather than inherent, in foodstuffs. "On average, Americans eat 16 percent of their daily calories from sugars added during food production," the FDA noted in its news  release. That's a sizable chunk we could all do without, or, at least, with considerably less of.

Many health experts agree. "Added sugars exert deleterious health effects beyond empty calories," Frank Hu, a nutrition and epidemiology researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said at a public meeting held by the FDA last week

But not everyone is so convinced. Namely, just about any and every industry and association such a label might negatively impact.

In a letter written on behalf of the American Bakers Association, American Beverage Association, American Frozen Foods Institute, Corn Refiners Association, International Dairy Foods Association  and National Confectioners Association last month, the groups reached out to the FDA in what can only be interpreted as an effort to delay the proposed rule change. At the same public meeting held last week, a representative for the American Frozen Food Institute said he believes "certain aspects of the proposal lack some merit, particularly the addition of added sugar.” Andrew Briscoe, the president of the Sugar Association, expressed reluctance about the additional labeling, too. “There is no preponderance of evidence to justify an added sugar label," he said.

The reality is that Big Sugar is likely reeling in remembrance of what the addition of trans fat to labels in 2006 did to the ingredient (it's now virtually non-existent). Evidence of sugar's adverse effects on health is actually fairly preponderant. Several organizations, including the World Health Organization and American Heart Association, have warned against the harms of excess sugar intake, which has been linked to a number of diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And Americans, as it happens, have been particularly good about over-consuming the stuff.

Per capita sugar consumption in the U.S. is still more than twice the recommended daily amount.

Part of that is undoubtedly linked to the country's growing appetite for, well, everything. Americans down almost 500 more calories today than they did 40 years ago.

But part of it is also likely due to the preponderance of extra sugars found in today's food supply, and, perhaps more specifically, the varying and increasing ways in which they're being buried in exhaustive ingredient lists and disguised with technical names like evaporated cane juice, fruit concentrate, glucose, diastatic malt and dextrose. There's sugar in just about everything today, and the vast majority of it is added during food production.

An explicit, quantifiable measure of added sugar would help pack any and all potential for misinformation into a single, easily digestible line on the back of food products. Sure, from an industry perspective, an added sugar by any single, identifiable name might not sell as sweet, but that's for Big Sugar to swallow — not the American populace.

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food, economics, immigration and other things. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.



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