Canada Gets Sugars Right, While FDA Goes Astray

Both country's agencies are revising nutrition facts panels and considering how to educate consumers about sugars.

By Glenn Lammi of Washington Legal Foundation

In a comment critical of his former employer’s proposal to mandate “added sugars” labeling, a former director of the FDA’s Office of Food Labeling wrote, “‘Added Sugar’ is the 'bête noir' of this decade for many in the nutrition community.”

That community’s obsession with added sugars hit an all-time high (or low) with FDA’s July 27 release of a proposed rule that supplements its March 3, 2014, proposed revision of the ubiquitous food Nutrition Facts panel. While U.S. regulators have been busy affirming the righteousness of their irrational approach, health officials in neighboring Canada have taken a far more reasoned stance. The contrast between the latter’s position and FDA’s proposal is quite instructive.

Sound science and the history of government nutrition policy dictate that narrowly focusing on one food, ingredient or nutrient is exactly the wrong way to reduce obesity. Past government pronouncements on the evils of fat and cholesterol pushed consumers away from items such as lean meat and eggs and toward products like fat-free cookies packed with sweeteners. Now, government is admitting that we shouldn’t worry so much about fat. It’s also no longer clear that salt deserves its status as a longtime public-health bogeyman.

Everyone, including food companies themselves, agrees that sugar and other sweeteners should be consumed in moderation. But that message, public health elites believe, isn’t compelling. So they invented the concept of “added sugars” and are working feverishly to make the public fear them.

Such activists want consumers to believe that 22g of sugars in one serving of cola contribute more calories, or worse calories, than 22g of sugars in one serving of 100 percent pure orange juice. But they know full well that, scientifically, the human body metabolizes intrinsic and added sugars identically. The Institutes of Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and even the FDA itself attest to that scientific fact and acknowledge that no analytical method exists to distinguish between intrinsic and added sugars.

Those well-established facts played a significant role in Health Canada’s recent decision to eschew the inclusion of a dedicated “Added Sugars” line on that country’s redesigned nutrition facts label. In order to educate consumers about sugars in processed foods, Health Canada is requiring the disclosure of a recommended daily value for all sugars (i.e., what percentage of a routine diet should constitute sugars) and the grouping of sugar-based ingredients together on a product’s ingredients list.

Health Canada said it considered the FDA’s idea of mandating a listing of Added Sugars, but decided against it for several reasons. One reason was that public surveys indicated that consumers would be confused by such information. The proposal also cited the “inability of analytical methods to distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars.”

A little more than a month after Canada reached its rational decision, U.S. regulators doubled down on their irrational approach in FDA’s supplemental Nutrition Facts proposal. The proposal seeks to retroactively justify FDA’s March 2014 added-sugars labeling idea by citing two new government documents. The first is an FDA consumer study performed after the release of the March 2014 proposal. The second is the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) Scientific Report.

The July 27 FDA proposal also cites the DGAC report, and the “new” data on which it relied, to justify an addition to the Nutrition Facts panel of a daily value (DV) of added sugars set for a maximum of 10 percent of calories consumed. In its March 2014 proposal, FDA explicitly declined to suggest a DV for added sugars.

FDA was roundly criticized for releasing the initial Nutrition Facts proposal in the absence of any proof that consumers would benefit from a redesign. In fact, a private survey, performed meticulously in accordance with federal research standards and submitted to FDA last year revealed considerable consumer confusion.

For instance, a substantial number of participants believed that instead of being a part of the Total Sugars figure, Added Sugars should be added to Total Sugars. FDA’s own survey of course came to very different conclusions. Other than “a number of participants ... [being] confused about the distinction between sugars and added sugars,” FDA asserts that its study reflected positive consumer understanding of the new label.

The agency’s reliance on the DGAC report is suspect for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that the report is nothing more than suggestions to two federal agencies — HHS and USDA — on how to craft the 2015 Nutrition Guidelines. The report should not be considered, as one sympathetic academic put it, “interim guidance.”

FDA erroneously views the DGAC as an autonomous, third-party scientific entity. The July 27 proposal characterizes it as an “independent advisory committee” and “a group of outside experts.” But the members were, to put it bluntly, political appointees. The Secretary of HHS, under whose jurisdiction FDA resides, along with the USDA Secretary hand-picked the committee members. The secretaries violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) in the process by failing to include representatives of any entity directly affected by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and by not abiding by the FACA “fair balance” requirement.

The contrast between Health Canada’s labeling approach and FDA’s is rather stark, and quite troubling. FDA decided in its March 2014 proposal, and reiterated in its July 27 document, that it found no scientific basis for requiring a daily value for all sugars, yet it feels there is compelling evidence to support a DV for added sugars. Health Canada, on the other hand, is requiring a DV for all sugars, but not one for added sugars.

Is FDA selectively picking and choosing the science on which it relies based on what policy approach it prefers? Also, based in part on consumer surveys done before it released its proposal, Health Canada declined labeling for added sugars. It also cited “industry research done in the U.S.” (most likely the previously mentioned private survey) that indicated consumer confusion. FDA, by comparison, acts as if no other research exists but its own after-the-fact survey.

Stakeholders in the Nutrition Facts redesign, as well as elected officials who oversee the agency, should subject FDA’s latest foray into the demonization of a single nutrient (or, more accurately, a sub-category of that nutrient) to probing scrutiny through public comments (deadline is Oct. 13) and other means. The agency’s reliance on the DGAC report betrays a type of group think in which the public interest can easily be forgotten.

An insightful column in Newsday said of FDA’s nutrition-labeling work: "I think what has happened here is that the FDA has allowed itself to be guided by what nutrition experts are talking about among themselves rather than what will actually help consumers make better decisions."

The current Nutrition Facts panel is now 20 years old, so it’s likely the redesigned label will be around a while. Shouldn’t it provide consumers with useful facts, instead of useless propaganda?

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