Fueled by revised dietary guidelines and new FDA labeling regulation, supermarkets are suddenly teeming with sugar substitutes in packaged foods. In response, the Sugar Association filed a citizen petition in June asking FDA to update labels of low- and no-calorie sweeteners on food packages to increase accuracy and transparency.
The petition makes four specific requests:
- Add the term “sweetener” in parentheses after the names of all non-nutritive sweeteners in the ingredient list.
- Indicate the type and quantity of non-nutritive sweeteners prominently on children’s products.
- Market labels as no/low/reduced sugar to include the disclosure, “sweetened with [name of sweetener(s)]” under such claims.
- Disclose on labels the potential gastrointestinal side effects from the consumption of sugar alcohols and some sugar substitutes in foods at the lowest observed effect levels.
The petition follows FDA’s first major change to food label regulation in 27 years. In January, FDA began requiring that manufacturers with $10 million or more of annual food sales list the amount and percent daily value for added sugars on nutrition and supplement facts labels. “Sugars” on the label has also been changed to “Total Sugars” to help consumers understand that “Added Sugars” is a subset of “Total Sugars.”
What was once primarily used in diet soft drinks is now ubiquitously found throughout the food supply.—Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association
“Consuming too much added sugars can make it difficult to meet nutrient needs while staying within calorie limits,” says a spokesperson for the agency. “The FDA recognizes that added sugars can be a part of a healthy dietary pattern. But, if consumed in excess, it becomes more difficult to also eat foods with enough dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals and still stay within calorie limits.” Specifically, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommends limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10% of total calories per day.
Truth in Numbers
However, the Sugar Association, which represents 142,000 sugar beet and cane growers, processors, and refiners in the U.S., says that lower sugar doesn’t always equate to lower calories per serving. Side-by-side comparisons of peanut butter, for example, show that the “No Sugar Added” versions contain 30 more calories per serving. In other cases where the listed calories are lower—in the low-sugar version of oatmeal, for example—the serving size has actually been decreased.
“There’s now this labeling gap,” says Courtney Gaine, PhD, RD, president and CEO of the Sugar Association. “We know one of the goals of the FDA for having added sugars on the label was to prompt manufacturers to reformulate and reduce the added sugars in foods. But, since the FDA announced this new labeling regulation in 2014, we started seeing labels making reduced sugar claims that are really misleading.”
The Question of Safety
Consumers also have a right to know what they are replacing sugar with, says Dr. Gaine, pointing out that, over the last four years, the use of sugar substitutes has tripled, if not quadrupled. “What was once primarily used in diet soft drinks is now ubiquitously found throughout the food supply,” says Dr. Gaine. “Our consumer research showed that, given a list of food additives, consumers could correctly identify sweetening ingredients only 37% of the time.”
Requiring that sweeteners be called out on the front of pack calls into question extensive safety reviews [and] diverts attention from the sugar reduction and other benefits they provide.—Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council
To date, FDA has approved six high-intensity sweeteners: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, neotame, and, advantame. Additional high-intensity sweeteners siraitia grosvenorii fruit extracts and steviol glycosides are also permitted for use under FDA’s GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status.