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.
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Explore This IssueAugust/September 2020
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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.
The threshold of safety for these sweeteners has been studied extensively, says Kris Sollid, senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, by scientific and regulatory authorities around the world, including the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives, FDA, the European Food Safety Authority, and others. “There is an acceptable daily intake (ADI) amount that has been established for each of these that has a safety factor of more than 100 times. The amount of these sweeteners used in individual products is also very low because they are so much more intense in terms of their sweetness, compared to sugar.”
While consumers with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder, may have difficulty metabolizing phenylalanine, a component of aspartame, regulatory agencies consider high-intensity sweeteners safe for the general population to consume.
“Adding a parenthetical after every listing of a sweetener on the ingredient list is repetitive and does not provide a public health benefit,” says Robert Rankin, president of the Calorie Control Council, which represents manufacturers and suppliers of low- and reduced-calorie foods and beverages. “Low and no-calorie sweeteners are an effective tool for reducing sugar and calorie content in foods. Requiring that sweeteners be called out on the front of pack calls into question these extensive safety reviews, diverts attention from the sugar reduction and other benefits they provide, and implies there is some underlying concern.”
Meanwhile, there’s a new category of sweeteners such as allulose, a monosaccharide found in raisins and figs that is not metabolized in the same way as sugar. FDA recently issued a statement that it will allow allulose to be excluded from the total and added sugars declarations on the Nutrition Facts and Supplement Facts labels but still be counted as four calories per gram.
Today’s consumer is more and more likely to prefer clean-label foods with easy-to-comprehend ingredients. A 2018 market insights survey by Innova found that three out of five consumers say they would rather just reduce sugar consumption instead of increase their consumption of artificial sweeteners. With consumers’ desire for transparency, certain manufacturers have already begun adding sweetener identifiers in their ingredient list voluntarily. “We thought this was a great idea and wanted to see it as the new standard,” says Dr. Gaine.
In addition, in November 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a statement saying that the long-term safety of non-nutritive sweeteners in childhood has not been assessed in humans; the organization recommended that FDA require food labels in the U.S. to list type and quantity of any non-nutritive sweeteners per serving.
And while sugar alcohols are also deemed safe, studies have found they may have some undesirable side effects. For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises that consuming more than 50 g/day of the sugar alcohol sorbitol or more than 20g/day of mannitol may cause unwanted gastrointestinal effects. “We are consumers and parents ourselves,” says Dr. Gaine. “Suddenly, there are sugar substitutes in so many of the juice and snacks we are feeding our kids.”
Dr. Gaine says that, ultimately, the Sugar Association’s petition is not about safety but about transparency. “We want to emphasize that this is a campaign for presenting accurate information on food labels,” she says. Dr. Gaine believes there’s a lot of consumer support for this issue, citing research that 73 percent of parents think it’s important to know the amount of sugar substitutes in their children’s food, and 66 percent of consumers say it’s important for sugar substitutes to be clearly identified as sweeteners on food labels.
Meanwhile, the petition is garnering support from consumer groups. “As the citizens’ petition points out, consumers may want to follow FDA’s advice and reduce their consumption of added sugars, but don’t realize that they may be unknowingly increasing their ingestion of novel sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and artificial substances,” writes Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, in a recent letter to the FDA. “By taking the enforcement actions set out in the petition, FDA can ensure that its addition of ‘added sugars’ to the Nutrition Facts label does not have the unintended result of permitting food and beverage manufacturers to deceive well-meaning consumers who are trying to make healthy food purchasing decisions as they shop for their families.”
FDA says it will respond to the Sugar Association within 180 days of the petition’s filing, and that such petitions typically require a significant amount of discussion within the agency by a multidisciplinary group of experts.