The Sugar Association wants the FDA to require all alternative sweeteners to be labeled as such, providing consumers transparency about the amounts of sweeteners in the foods they eat.
The industry's science group filed a petition with the FDA on Wednesday, asking for several required changes to labels and claims when a product is made with a non-caloric sweetener, sugar alcohol, high intensity sweetener, artificial sweetener or novel sweetener. Currently, the chemical name of these sweeteners are included on ingredients lists, but there is no indication that they are sweeteners. Consequently, if consumers don't know that items including erythritol, rebaudioside A or maltitol are sweeteners, they are unaware of sweeteners in products.
"Consumers want and deserve more information," Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, said at a virtual press conference on Wednesday. "Many consumers are concerned about alternative sweeteners. Some want to reduce or eliminate them in their diets, but at the very least, most want to know if a product even contains them. However, this is very difficult to do under current food labeling regulations. Current regulations are incomplete. They lack transparency and can mislead consumers rather than clarify."
Use of these ingredients has exploded as the FDA's revamped Nutrition Facts label has rolled out. The new label tells consumers how many grams of sugar is in a product, and then breaks out how much of that sugar has been added as an additional sweetener. Many alternative sweeteners don't fit the definition of sugars on this labeling scheme, so manufacturers looking to reduce their sugar content on labels have gravitated toward them.
"Current regulations are incomplete. They lack transparency and can mislead consumers rather than clarify."
President and CEO, Sugar Association
The Sugar Association is asking the FDA to require that every alternative sweetener in an ingredients list is labeled in parentheses as a sweetener. The organization wants all kid-targeted items using these sweeteners to indicate the type and amount of sweetener on the front of food packages. For items with label claims touting no sugar, low sugar or reduced sugar, it wants disclosures saying what the items are sweetened with. It wants some disclosure of potential gastrointestinal side effects from sugar alcohols, as well as in general for all claims related to sugar and substitutes to be truthful and non-misleading.
Research conducted by the Sugar Association indicate this is the kind of information consumers want to know. In an online poll the group conducted of 1,002 adults — 471 of whom were parents — in the last month, 66% said it was important to know how their food is sweetened. Two in five consumers said it was very important to know if there are sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners in their food. When parents were asked, 73% said knowing the amount of sugar substitutes in children's food is important. This kind of disclosure was ranked as very important to more consumers than information about high fructose corn syrup, added sugars, artificial colors, monosodium glutamate and nitrates.
Much as consumers want to know more about these sweeteners, from the information available to them, many are unable to make those distinctions. In the poll, 80% of consumers indicated they were at least somewhat confident in their ability to determine whether sugar substitutes are in food and drinks. Yet when presented with a list of ingredients and asked to identify whether they were sweeteners, consumers were only correct on sweeteners 37% of the time.
Unaffiliated research also points to consumers being less interested in alternative sweeteners. A survey last year by Innova Market Insights found three in five consumers would rather reduce sugar intake than replace it with artificial sweeteners.
Current labels can be extremely misleading, Gaine said, presenting several images of packages for products with reduced sugar claims. A Snack Pack pudding cups package she displayed clearly indicates on the front that the pudding is sugar free. However, a look at the ingredients list shows it has four sweeteners: sorbitol, maltitol, sucralose and acesulfame potassium. The first two are sugar alcohols, produced by fruits, which can be difficult for the body to digest. The second two are artificial sweeteners.
Another package she showed for Hapi Water Pure Punch says on the front that the product has zero grams of sugar and is naturally sweetened. However, two of its seven ingredients — including the one just behind water — are alternative sweeteners erythritol and stevial glycoside Reb A.
And a reduced sugar Quaker Instant Oatmeal package she showed, which claims to have 35% less sugar than the regular version, uses monk fruit extract in addition to sugar. It also reduces serving size by 29%.
Gaine said as a consumer, she has been thinking about the importance of these labeling changes for a couple of years. The Sugar Association has been working on the proposal for more than a year. The proposal is about providing consumers with the kind of information they want, she said — not about helping the roughly 142,000 growers, processors and refiners of sugar beets and sugar cane who are members of the industry group.
"It's a natural extension of the FDA's overhaul of the Nutrition Facts label. And if I could rewind back to four years ago, we should have brought it up when there was the proposed rule for labeling," Gaine said at the press conference. "We see this as an oversight by FDA in proposing the new label to not have a comprehensive look at all sweeteners."
What happens next is largely up to the FDA and manufacturers. The federal agency has six months to respond to the industry petition, and the response may be a longer fact-finding period to do research and get comments from consumers and stakeholders.
The petition was first announced on Wednesday, and Gaine said the Sugar Association had not previously mentioned it to any consumer or industry groups. Manufacturers also hadn't been briefed on the petition until Wednesday's announcement. Gaine said there are a few products that already use this kind of labeling convention, including Pillsbury quick bread and muffin mixes and Target's private label oatmeal, so she is hopeful that more manufacturers will take this step.
"Consumers are confused about alternative sweeteners and want the industry to do better. And we know we can do better," she said.