Added Sugar, Subtracted Science: A New Report and a Labeling Debate at the FDA

, , Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | June 24, 2014, 10:14 am EDT
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As a researcher focused on how science is used and misused in policy debates, I’ve seen more than my fair share of interference in (what should be) evidence-based decision making. But when I first dug into the details featured in our new report, Added Sugar, Subtracted Science, even I had to raise an eyebrow.

On rare occasion, events occur that provide us a glimpse into the thinking behind those involved in abuses of science. Newly released documents from a lawsuit between corn syrup interests and cane and beet sugar interests have done just that.

Studies increasingly point to the overconsumption of sugar as a major contributing factor in our country's rising health risks for metabolic syndrome, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Studies increasingly point to the overconsumption of sugar as a major contributing factor in our country’s rising health risks for metabolic syndrome, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Photo: Shutterstock

“We can just bury the data”

The report released today pulls from these documents to illuminate how sugar interests have worked to misuse science in order to influence our food and health policies. They have attacked scientific research that is inconvenient to their bottom line, hired scientists to buy credibility, and paid academic scientists to carry their talking points. They have poured money into policy debates and misled decision makers about how sugar affects our health.  There are many interesting details in the report and the documents themselves, but here’s a taste:

  • Internal emails from the Sugar Association reveal that the group planned to mislead the public about sugar’s health impacts. In a memo, one employee included a bullet entitled, “question the existing science” with respect to sugar and health.
  • In response to an inconvenient scientific paper, the Corn Refiners Association considered funding a counter study. But if that research didn’t confirm their position, one consultation wrote, “we can just bury the data.”
  • In an effort to influence school nutrition rules, General Mills told the USDA that with the exception of dental issues, “sugar intake has not been shown to be directly associated with obesity or any chronic disease or health condition”—a claim that runs counter to the science implicating sugar in a variety of health problems, from obesity to heart disease.

Sugar interests challenge the FDA on an added sugars declaration on the nutrition facts label

I wish I could say these were all historical examples, but alas. In addition to the current food fight over school lunch, the FDA is now considering an update to the Nutrition Facts label on food packages that would require manufacturers to declare added sugars. If enacted, consumers could know how much sugar has been added to foods. But many producers of sugar and sugary products would prefer to avoid disclosing added sugars. And they are taking steps to prevent the FDA proposal from moving forward.

Last week, six trade groups—all with significant interests in sugar—sent a letter to the FDA offering to fund a study on label effectiveness, in an attempt to delay or stop implementation of the proposed label changes. Headed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, many food companies have already implemented a voluntary (and potentially misleading) labeling program, Facts Up Front.

These efforts are misguided. People have a right to know how much sugar has been added to their foods. And a labeling requirement could lead to improved health through changes in both consumer behavior and food producers using less sugar (think trans fat labeling success).

Beyond a sugar-coated food system

An added sugars declaration on the Nutrition Facts label would empower consumers with knowledge of how much sugar has been added to foods. Photo: iStock

An added sugars declaration on the Nutrition Facts label would empower consumers with knowledge of how much sugar has been added to foods. Photo: iStock

On Thursday, I will be speaking at the FDA public meeting in support of an added sugar label. Already, health organizations from the National Alliance for Hispanic Health to the American Dental Association have written in support of the rule (and you can too). The American Diabetes Association asserted:

There is great confusion in the general public between sugars added to food during processing and naturally occurring sugars … Knowing how much added sugar a food or beverage contains is key in ensuring individuals are able to make dietary decisions to reduce their consumption.

In addition to understanding the science behind sugar’s adverse health impacts, I am also motivated by my personal experience with sugar consumption. Tomorrow, I finish my last day of the Fed Up Challenge—going sugar free for 10 days. I’ll cover this experience in detail in a future post, but the bottom line? Added sugars are hidden everywhere, and citizens seeking low-sugar diets are hard-pressed to find the information they need to make this healthier choice. As the film Fed Up shows, industry has worked hard to keep our sugar consumption high (and industry has worked to combat the film’s message too).

When I think about the food I eat and feed to my family, I want to be safe. I expect policies to protect me from any harm that food might do to me and importantly, I expect to know what those harms might be.  The public has been kept in the dark for too long on the adverse health effects of sugar. Those who profit from our sugar over-consumption have worked to ensure this, but now is the time to push back.

Learn about sugar interests’ tactics, and then join me in asking the FDA to label added sugars. Incremental steps like this can help move us beyond a sugar-coated food system.

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  • Importantly, our member companies have voluntarily – and successfully — implemented significant policies, programs and practices to help encourage a
    healthy balance. Working with the First Lady and the Partnership for a Healthier America, President Clinton and his Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the U.S.
    Conference of Mayors and others, we have changed the school beverage landscape, placed calorie labels on all of our containers, supported community programs that promote balanced diets and physical activity, and much more. In addition, through ongoing innovation, our member companies provide beverage choices in a range of portion sizes and offer no- and low-calorie options for virtually every brand they make. With ongoing education efforts that embrace a holistic approach to overall diet, consumers will have the knowledge to make informed choices. This comprehensive approach will prove more productive than demonizing a single food, beverage or ingredient.
    -American Beverage Association

    • Thank you for your comment. It is commendable that ABA and its members have taken such voluntary steps to help their customers make more informed choices, however, we know that voluntary measures are rare—if ever—enough to move the needle when it comes to improving public health.

      Our main point in this analysis is that it is important that policy makers have the ability to make science-informed decisions that affect our health. They should have access to the best available science and be able to make decisions without interference, but we found that groups with interests in sugar often cloud the policy-making process with misinformation about the effect their products have on public health.

      When it comes to changes in food and health policy, sugar, of course, is not the only place where policy makers can focus their attention, but the science strongly indicates that sugar over-consumption is detrimental to public health. Overall, Americans are consuming more than twice the sugar intake recommended by scientific and health authorities. At a minimum, the public deserves to know how much sugar is being
      added to products they consume. We hope that policies designed to foster
      across-the-board transparency for consumers are something companies can embrace. Such an approach—based in national policy—would be truly

      Tackling issues in a piecemeal fashion is not a comprehensive way to make policy, but it is almost exclusively how the government does things. We’re not looking to demonize any single product, ingredient or beverage, but we are asking policy makers to close the gap between food policy—which encourages sugar over-consumption and makes it easy for companies to obscure the amount of added-sugar in their products—and
      established public health science, which tells us that sugar is a dangerous threat to ignore in our food policies.