In March 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP) on packaged food products before conducting research on how the changes would be understood by consumers. This “ready, fire, aim” approach will likely lead to consumer confusion and other unintended consequences.
The proposal would increase the prominence of the “calories” statement, bringing reasonable focus to balancing caloric consumption with expenditure, which leading nutrition authorities agree is fundamental to nutritional health—so far, so good.
Unfortunately, the proposal also would modify the NFP to include an “added sugars” line, nominally in an attempt to help consumers apply advice from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This proposal runs counter, however, to a 1993 report in which the FDA concluded there was no scientific evidence to justify the mandatory inclusion of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
In fact, there is no clear definition of what constitutes an “added” sugar, causing even more difficulty in providing relevant information. No scientific basis for resolving these definitional issues appears to be available. FDA’s proposal acknowledges that available scientific evidence shows that there is no nutritional difference between sugars that occur naturally compared to those that are added. Added sugar does not uniquely contribute to weight gain or to any obesity-related diseases such as diabetes or liver disease.
Further, the proposal has raised weighty legal issues. The authority for FDA to require such a labeling declaration is in doubt since added sugar is not a nutrient. With no analytical method available for FDA to enforce compliance of added sugar labeling, FDA also proposed to require food manufacturers to regularly submit to the agency highly confidential proprietary product formulation information. Providing this information may compromise these companies’ intellectual property and adversely affect their ability to compete.
Most important are questions about what the proposal would mean for public health. Would an added sugars line improve consumer understanding of nutritional characteristics so that dietary practices might be improved? Understandably, FDA is eager to conduct research to assess that question. But that research should have been done before mandating the proposed new labeling, not after. In the meantime, the only relevant empirical data in the rulemaking record suggests that the answer is a resounding “no.”
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) 2014 Food and Health Survey shows that consumers don’t have an accurate understanding of sugars and added sugars. Two out of three consumers (68%) incorrectly believe naturally occurring sugars are healthier for them than added sugars, and nearly half of those surveyed incorrectly believe sugars need to be completely eliminated from the diet in order to lose weight.
Recently, the IFIC Foundation contracted with a third party research firm to learn more about how the proposed new labels would impact consumer awareness and decision-making. They found that the proposed added sugars line distorts how consumers view the amount of sugars in products. In fact, while the premise for including the added sugars line in the NFP is to add usable and clear information about sugars for consumers, the IFIC research found that the opposite happens when consumers read the proposed new labels.
Many people interpret the added sugars line as indicating that products contain more sugars than they actually do—they erroneously add the added sugars to the overall sugars line rather than understand the proposed new line to be a subset of the total sugars in the product.
When asked to report the total amount of sugars in a product after looking at a version of the Nutrition Facts Panel:
• Only 8% of those seeing the current label got the answer wrong.
• Almost half (45%) seeing the sugars + added sugars version gave the wrong answer.
• The word “total” helps to clarify the issue, but not completely. One-third (34%) seeing the total sugars + added sugars version gave the incorrect answer.
When asked to choose among the current version versus the two being proposed by FDA, 80% selected the simpler, single line of “sugars” as their first choice.
Hopefully, these insights into consumer understanding will enable FDA to defer rulemaking until an adequate evidentiary record has been developed, and tailor its research to generate meaningful findings and pose additional questions that might better advance FDA’s pursuit of its regulatory objectives.
Including “added sugars” on the Nutrition Facts Panel will likely lead to consumer confusion and will serve only to place more of a burden on consumers by providing information that is subjective and easily misinterpreted. Whatever course of action the FDA chooses, their actions should be driven by academic and consumer research.
John W. Bode, a member of IFT, is President & CEO, Corn Refiners Association, Washington, D.C. 20006 ([email protected]).