Added Sugar on the Nutrition Facts Label: Public Comments to the FDA Show Big Food Is Sour on Science

, former analyst, Center for Science & Democracy | May 6, 2015, 10:11 am EDT
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In new research UCS released this week, an analysis of comments submitted to the FDA on its proposed rule to label added sugar shows a stark difference between supporters and opponents. Comments supporting the proposed rule—a majority of the total comments—came from public health experts and public interest advocates. Comments opposing the proposed rule overwhelmingly came from the food industry.

While not entirely surprising on its own (we’ve written about it here — and here and here and here and here and here), food industry denial of the science on added sugar stands out starkly in comments to the FDA from major companies and their trade groups. The Grocery Manufacturers Association said, for example, “there is scant evidence to support the idea that added sugar contributes to ill health” and therefore “providing this information in a nutrition label will not help aid consumers in maintaining a healthy diet.”

What is an ordinary person to do when both the food industry disagrees with independent scientists and public health experts so much yet both claim to have the facts on their side? The key is understanding motivations.

The First Line of Food Industry Defense

Perhaps the food industry believes that if they deny the science on added sugars often enough, loud enough, and to the right people—policymakers with the power to change labels and make dietary recommendations to the public—it will just go away.

The same trend we found in comments to the FDA appeared in food industry comments to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee as these experts reviewed the evidence—and in comments on the DGAC’s final report to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, in which the committee found moderate to strong evidence of a link between excessive added sugar consumption and a host of health problems, from type 2 diabetes to heart disease.

Laugh as we may, this tactic has worked in the past for Big Tobacco and for the Merchants of Doubt hawking climate change skepticism for fossil fuel interests. Following the close of the public comment period on the DGAC report on May 8 (Submit your comments today!), the USDA and HHS will develop the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document that will inform what Americans eat for the next five years.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of Food Politics, whom we spoke with about corporate interference in food policy, said, “Attacking the science is the first line of industry defense against recommendations that suggest eating less of their products. Food companies are following the lead of cigarette companies in that regard.”

Calling Something a Fact Doesn’t Make It One

The flip side of denying facts is claiming things to be facts that are not facts. This seems to be the latest trick the food industry is playing. In the website snippet below, the American Beverage Association, a trade group that represents companies like Coca Cola and PepsiCo, says on a page claiming to provide “the facts on added sugars labeling” that “sugar is sugar, regardless of its source.”

ABA image

The science says otherwise.

Other trade groups, like the International Food Information Council tout their own “research” that finds, of course, that labeling added sugar is misleading and confusing because the public doesn’t know how to read food labels. Yet along with the independent experts serving on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, preeminent public health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, support limiting and labeling added sugar. How does the average person make sense of this disagreement over evidence and policy?

Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, expert on the science of sugar, and author of the bestselling book Fat Chance, explained it to us succinctly when we spoke with him by phone. “The only ones opposed to limiting and labeling added sugar,” he said, “are the ones putting it in our food.”

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  • highdestiny

    I wonder what would happen if the food industry was required to accurately report what is inside their products and consumers could make their own decisions about what it means and whether or not it is healthy for them. “Scant scientific evidence” for something being unhealthy does not make it healthy. That’s why consumer information should be king.

    • Indeed, consumer information is key. Right now, the food industry wants to make it all about choice, but with 74% of packaged foods containing added sugar, it can sometimes be challenging to make good choices. Better information would help people make better choices. The food industry, of course, is fighting this tooth and nail because it’s better for them if people have the illusion of choice rather than the actuality it.

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  • When it comes to information on food packages, we should standardize and adopt a simple traffic lights system for determining contents …

    • Definitely, this could be very helpful, in conjunction with the Nutrition Facts label.

      • The point of such labeling is to speed up shopping. If people can see in a glance the basics of what their food contains, that will only increase the odds they’ll buy it, and they’ll buy more. Figure such would be a win-win …

      • Presumably people would buy more of things coded as healthy, in which case it would be win-win. Not so much for unhealthy products. I’d also want to know more about what determines the green, yellow, or red for a product’s overall grade. If something was low in fat, saturates, and salt but very high in sugar, what would that mean for its grade?

      • You might be right about unhealthy foods, but only for health-conscious shoppers. Also, check the image again, all of that information is individually listed. For example, one product label might look like this …