You might recall that it was Michelle Obama who started the work on a new nutritional facts panel: In January 2020, after many delays, the 2016 legislation will finally become law, and food companies will be required to include “added sugars” on their packages. For consumers, it’s a big win as we try to limit the added sugars that are part of our diet, and many brands saw the opportunity to align with what consumers wanted and already started listing these over the past couple of years.
One out of every three Americans have higher blood sugar levels than normal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an “added sugar” includes any sugars, syrups and fruit juices that are added to processed foods.
Here is the new wrinkle. In mid-April, the FDA drafted a proposal to allow producers to use a little-known sweetener called “allulose” without counting it as an “added sugar.” Allulose is a naturally occurring sugar that can be derived from dried figs, raisins and wheat, or manufactured artificially, FDA said in its draft guidance. It also contains significantly fewer calories per gram compared to table sugar.
So the FDA is now deciding to rank sugars? Good and bad sugars? Why? Well, it goes back to 2015 when Obama was first pushing for the reform. That’s when U.K.’s Tate & Lyle—the company behind Splenda and other food additives—submitted a citizen petition to FDA, asking that the agency exempt allulose from the “added sugar” labeling requirement. According to The New Food Economy, Tate & Lyle’s own research—which was conducted on just eight to 12 adults—found that while the ingredient tastes sweet on the tongue, it doesn’t get metabolized by the digestive system and is flushed out in urine. The petition said that counting allulose as an “added sugar” would “lead to confusion, especially those with diabetes and consumers who may be otherwise monitoring their blood [glucose] levels.”
The biggest experiment run by Tate & Lyle, again as reported by The New Food Economy, was an online consumer perception survey of 4,000 Americans. It found that 30% to 40% of respondents believed that allulose-flavored beverages had high-calorie counts and that they raised blood sugar levels, neither of which is actually the case. For the company, the solution to this confusion was to exempt allulose from “added sugar” labels altogether. The FDA obviously agrees.
Jessica Fu, the author of the column in The New Food Economy, writes that “though the allulose exemption is the first carve-out of the 'added sugar' labeling requirement, it’s not likely to be the last. The FDA is also considering a revision to the way products like maple syrup are required to declare 'added sugar' content when they are, in fact, all sugar in and of themselves.”
Let the games begin, and once again shoppers—and the truth—are the losers.