Of all the issues the Obama administration is grappling with, a modest redesign of what food labels say about sweeteners might not have seemed among the more controversial. But ever since first lady Michelle Obama unveiled the plan last year, a lobbying frenzy has ensued.
The objections have not only come from candy makers and bottlers of soft drinks. The governor of Massachusetts implored the administration to rethink its proposal. The governor of Wisconsin protested, too. So did the government of Australia, which warned the move could violate international trade agreements.
The proposal being considered by the Food and Drug Administration would add a new line to labels on packaged products noting how many teaspoons of sugar had been added.
The furor over the idea reveals the extent to which extra sugar is infused into even the most unlikely foods and the concerns that manufacturers have about consumers finding out. The FDA has received 287,889 public comments on the plan, including many from major food companies and trade associations.
Nutrition advocates say the strong reaction shows just how much is at stake.
“They know this will impact how people choose their products, and that terrifies them,” said Renee Sharp, director of research for the Environmental Working Group, one of several advocacy groups campaigning for the label change.
But food-industry representatives say the proposal is unwarranted. Current labels disclose the total amount of sugar in a product, combining what occurs naturally in a food and what is added during processing. Sugar is sugar, and no evidence justifies singling out one type for added labeling requirements, industry officials say.
“The lack of science to justify ‘added-sugar’ labeling sets an alarming precedent,” the president of the Sugar Association, Andrew Briscoe, wrote the administration.
Opponents warn of a slippery slope that starts with sugar but doesn’t end there. Any number of other ingredients could be targeted next as a de facto warning to consumers, they say.
For the administration, too, the issue has taken on outsized importance. Diet is a signature issue for the first couple, and food labels that could tell consumers more about what they’re eating are a legacy the Obamas would like to leave along with the White House vegetable garden.
Dessert makers are but a sliver of the coalition opposed to added-label mandates.
“Consumers already have the information they need to make healthy dietary choices,” the Dairy Institute of California wrote in lengthy objections to the administration’s plan. Among the trade association’s many warnings to the FDA is that coveted trade secrets of the flavored-milk industry would be disclosed if dairies were forced to reveal how many teaspoons of sugar were added to each carton.
The loudest alarm is being rung by the cranberry industry, which over the summer enlisted Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat. The governors wrote to the FDA that forcing disclosure of the added sugar in cranberry products would be unfair because, unlike other fruits, cranberries are so bitter that they are unpalatable without it.
The Campbell Soup Co. argued that revealing how much sugar they pour into their cans could help make Americans more obese.
“Such information could confuse consumers by taking their focus off of calories,” the company’s director of regulatory affairs wrote to the agency.
Another of the dozens of companies calling on the FDA to scrap the sugar plan is the Roman Meal Co., which makes whole-grain breads. The American Nutrition Society also joined the fight. Its sustaining partner donors include Kellog Co., Coca-Cola and Dannon.
Nutrition advocates say the uproar only bolsters their argument that unhealthy amounts of sweeteners are infiltrating unlikely corners of the food supply.
“That one line on a label seems like a small thing,” said Deborah Bailin, an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But not having it covers up a very big fact that the food industry does not want people to know.”
“Things they want you to think are healthy are full of sugar.”
When the Environmental Working Group analyzed 80,000 food products, it found that 58 percent had extra sugar added. That included even most deli meats on supermarket shelves.
“I was shocked,” Sharp said. “I mean, it’s turkey. Why is there sugar in it?”
The FDA says its only agenda is transparency. But for advocacy groups, the effort is part of a crusade to get companies to lower the sugar content of products. They are pleased to see so many food manufacturers warn that additional disclosure would prompt consumers to stop buying products with so much added sugar.
On that point, at least, the food industry and nutrition advocates agree: What starts as simply a move for transparency could evolve into something more.
“When you pick up a bottle of salad dressing, you can already see there are 47 different kinds of sugar in it,” said Baylen Linnekin, executive director of the Washington-based Keep Food Legal Foundation. “By forcing what amounts to an added-sugar warning on the label, the government is attempting to skew consumer demand.”
He warned of what could come next.
“Look at trans fats,” he said. “First there was a requirement they be labeled. Now the FDA is moving to ban them.”