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The Sugar Industry Is Hopping Mad Over New FDA Nutrition Labels

by Jesse Hirsch

May 23, 2016
Former FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg (Getty Images)

Amid much hoopla, Michelle Obama just announced the first changes in more than two decades to the FDA’s nutrition labels. Some tweaks are minor, of interest to only the biggest nutrition wonks (eg, adding the potassium gram amount), while several changes bear the marks of a major shake-up. 

This FDA announcement dovetails nicely into the First Lady’s healthy eating, anti-obesity campaign, an initiative that has spanned school lunches, gardening, and a sweet Beyonce-driven workout regimen. Shaking up federal bureaucracy doesn’t come easy; these new labels — in the works since 2014 —must feel like a coup during Obama’s final months in the White House. 

The new labels will highlight added sugars, surely their most contentious element. Previously there was no distinction between sugar that naturally occurs in say, fruit, and the stuff that’s been introduced by food manufacturers. A 20-ounce Coke, for instance, will now own up to adding 65 grams of sugar — 130% of the recommended daily allowance. 

Unshockingly, Big Food lobbying groups including the American Bakers Association, American Beverage Association, American Frozen Foods Institute, Corn Refiners Association, International Dairy Foods Association and National Confectioners Association all railed hard against the changes. And, well, they lost. Some groups have taken the news gamely; the Grocery Manufacturers Association called the new labels “timely”, and promised to help consumers understand the changes. The major sugar lobbying group wasn’t quite so graceful.

"The Sugar Association is disappointed by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) ruling to require an 'added sugars' declaration and daily reference value (DRV) on the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL)," the group said in an official statement Friday. "The extraordinary contradictions and irregularities, as well as the lack of scientific justification in this rulemaking process are unprecedented for the FDA."

Sour grapes aside, greater transparency is always a plus, especially at a time when consumers are demanding it more than ever. But some argue these new labels aren’t really tackling the roots of our country’s health issues. Dr. Martin Binks, a nutrition professor at Texas Tech who focuses on obesity, sees the labels as a bit of a distraction. “This is clearly a positive thing, don’t get me wrong,” says Binks. “Surely it would be better if the population ate a little less sugar. But I think we’ve grown myopically focused on added sugar as a magic culprit, like if we just cut that from our diet we’ll all be healthy.”

Binks advocates sugar reduction as simply one step among many towards a healthier, more balanced diet. He also worries that the new labels will largely matter to more affluent shoppers, already well-versed in nutrition issues. “These labels aren’t something you look at unless you’re seeking them out,” he says, noting a correlation to the mandated calorie info on fast food menus. “It’s probably not going to do much for demographics that aren’t health-conscious already — the populations in greatest need of change.” (Former FDA economist Richard Williams also wrote a scathing op-ed for Politico about how unlikely the labels are to be effective.)

Other elements of the new labels include more realistic serving sizes for humans — three Doritos does not a portion make — and larger, easier-to-find calorie counts. The changes don’t have to be implemented until 2018, giving manufacturers ample time to reconfigure all their packaging (something they are generally loathe to do). The FDA is also looking to crack down on grocery labels reading “natural”, which has sparked an almost theological discussion over what that word means.

Binks would love it if, like proposed “Natural” or “Contains GMOs” labels, nutrition info was more visibly prominent on packaging. That’s unlikely to be mandated anytime soon, however. “It would be great if we could partner with manufacturers so they’d start voluntarily putting [nutrition] info on the front of packages,” he says.

It’s a nice — if unlikely — thought.

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The Sugar Industry Is Hopping Mad Over New FDA Nutrition Labels