WASHINGTON – For Mayo Clinic’s Donald Hensrud, labels that list the amount of sugar added to food and beverages are a no-brainer.
Like most physicians working in public health, Hensrud sees a link between consumption of added sugars and the country’s problems with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“The science is pretty clear, ” said Hensrud, a professor of nutrition and preventive medicine. “If you do good science, that should stand.”
A year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed that foodmakers be required to list “added sugars” on labels.
The food and beverage industries, including several of Minnesota’s biggest companies, want things to stay the way they are. Currently, labels report only total sugar content, commingling naturally occurring sugars with those added during processing. In the past 12 months, dozens of companies and trade groups have lobbied regulators and filed hundreds of pages of protests trying to kill the FDA’s proposed “added sugars” label requirement.
“Sugar and added sugar from an analytical perspective are the same,” said Kevin Myers, vice president of research and development for Austin-based Hormel Foods Corp. “If chemically you can’t separate added sugar and natural sugar, the body can’t separate them, either.”
Hormel, along with General Mills Inc. and Schwan Food Co., have each filed objections with the FDA. Trade associations that list more than 20 other Minnesota companies as members have argued against the sugar proposal, with the Grocery Manufacturers Association also noting that some members approve of sugar labeling.
Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department in Harvard’s School of Public Health, said that while some producers may be open to disclosure “there is a part of the industry that resists any disclosure as a matter of principle. I think there is some real fear that people will know the truth about how much sugar is being dumped into their food supply.”
The FDA’s added-sugars proposal is part of a larger retooling of the Nutrition Facts label required on most packaged foods and beverages.
Sugar occurs naturally in many foods, notably in fruit and dairy products. Added sugars, including corn syrup, are mixed in during processing. They are most prevalent in soda pop, fruit drinks and cookies and other grain-based desserts. But sugars are routinely added to all sorts of foods using all sorts of names.
“Seventy-four percent of packaged foods have sugars added,” said Laura Schmidt, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. Added sugars appear on food labels under at least 61 different names, she noted.
The difference between natural and added sugars in a product can be significant. With only one gram of sugar per serving, General Mills’ traditional Cheerios is one of the least sweet cereals on the market. But Honey Nut Cheerios, the top-selling U.S. cereal, has 9 grams (more than two teaspoons) per serving. The difference is added sugars.
Yogurt often comes with a big dollop of added sugars, too. Yoplait and Dannon, two of the most popular U.S. brands, respectively have 26 and 24 grams (six teaspoons) of sugar per serving in their conventional flavored yogurt.
Even many savory foods have added sugars. Hormel’s canned chili has 5 to 6 grams per serving.
Mostly, though, sugar adds taste, but no nutrient value.
On average, added sugars now make up 15 percent of an American’s diet, public health experts say, roughly three times more than the American Heart Association recommends. A scientific advisory panel for the United States Department of Agriculture recently recommended that added sugars make up a maximum 10 percent of daily calories.
There’s adequate evidence that added sugars contribute extra dietary calories, which could lead to obesity, the FDA says. Further, as consumption of added sugars goes up, intake of good stuff — vitamins, minerals, fiber — goes down.
“The more added sugars people get in their diets, the less likely they are to get adequate nutrients,” said University of Minnesota epidemiologist Mark Pereira.
Some research has also linked high consumption of added sugars to increased risks of cardiovascular disease.
Still, there’s no scientific consensus about the effects of added sugar beyond the idea that they are empty calories crowding out nutrients.
Consumers told the Star Tribune that they want to know about added sugars anyway.
Sarah Byers, a 38-year-old mother of two in Prior Lake, is a label reader, and she wants more details about the sweet stuff. “I’m not too much of a Nazi on sugar — I allow Chips Ahoy [cookies] and ice cream to come into the house — but I want to know how much sugar is not naturally in a product, ” she said. “I might make a decision based on the added sugar.”
Rachel Ramadhyani of Minneapolis said she’d love to see added sugars listed on food labels when she shops for her diabetic husband. “To deprive us of the information is unfair, ” she said, because added sugars are “junk.”
“If food companies are ashamed about adding extra sugars and they don’t want that to come to light, ” Ramadhyani continued, “maybe there’s an issue there.”
Packaged food companies counter that listing added sugars would only confuse consumers.
“You will always find that consumers want more information; they never want less,” said Karen Wilder, senior director of scientific and regulatory affairs at Marshall, Minn.-based Schwan’s, maker food products including pizza and ice cream.
Schwan’s, General Mills, Hormel and scores of other food firms say consumers would be confused by labeling both for added and total sugars. A 2014 consumer survey by an industry-sponsored research group found just that.
“In the survey, up to half of the people didn’t understand the difference [between added and total sugar] and in many cases were adding the numbers together, ” said Kathy Weimer, senior fellow at General Mills’ Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition.
In its filing with the FDA, General Mills notes that the FDA itself has acknowledged a “lack of physiological distinction between added and naturally occurring sugars.”
But sugar researcher Kimber Stanhope at the University of California-Davis pointed to a March 2014 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that showed consuming large amounts of berries, citrus fruit, apples and grapes lowered the risks of heart disease. In contrast, higher percentages of added sugars in individual diets add to those risks, she said.
How successful the food industry will be in thwarting added sugar labels remains unclear. A federal dietary guidelines committee is about to release its 2015 recommendations that will include limits on added sugars.
But the influence of the companies and trade groups could extend the FDA’s plodding rule-making process by years. Federal filings show that in 2014, General Mills, Cargill, Hormel and Schwan, as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and National Manufacturers Association, spent some portion of their seven- and six-figure lobbying budgets on labeling.