- The Sugar Association sent a supplemental petition to the FDA asking the government to mandate more transparency in labeling of alternative sweeteners in products. The group is asking that manufacturers be required to clearly disclose which ingredients are sweeteners, include front-of-package disclosures about included sweeteners for products that make low/no sugar claims, have calorie disclosures if calorie reduction is not significant, and disclose gastrointestinal effects associated with alternative sweeteners.
- The group filed a similar petition in June 2020. The petition appeared on Regulations.gov about a month later, and has received more than 200 public comments to date. An interim response came from the FDA on Nov. 30, 2020, indicating that the department was still working on the issue because of other priorities and short staffing. No further response has been received.
- As consumers aim to cut their sugar intake and manufacturers look to improve the amount of sugars on their Nutrition Facts labels, alternative sweeteners are becoming more popular. These sweeteners have names that are less recognizable to average consumers.
More than a year and a half after the Sugar Association filed its initial petition with the FDA, a lot has changed at the agency — namely a new president and a different FDA administrator, who was just confirmed last month.
In the food and beverage space, there's been a lot of action in terms of alternative sweeteners as well. Since the Sugar Association's petition was filed, 2,318 new products using alternative sweeteners have been introduced in the United States, according to Mintel statistics referenced in the updated petition. That adds up to 300% growth in prevalence of alternative sweeteners in food in the last five years, the petition states.
The last year and half have also seen large advancements in development and use of alternative sweeteners. Demand for allulose, a close relative of sugar that is naturally occurring and has 90% fewer calories, has skyrocketed. Because allulose is metabolized differently than sugar, it does not need to be included in total sugars on an ingredients label. Ingredion has partnered with synthetic biology company Amyris to commercialize Rebaudioside M — the most sugar-like component that is naturally occurring in stevia — made through fermentation. Through a partnership with biotech player Conagen, Sweegen recently made commercially produced brazzein, a rare calorie-free sugar naturally found in the African oubli fruit, available to manufacturers. And Hershey has entered into a partnership with sweetener maker Bonumose, funding its $27.7 million facility expansion to commercialize rare sugars including tagatose and create lower-sugar candies for the confectioner.
The Sugar Association argues both in the original petition and the one filed today that consumers want to know when there are alternative sweeteners in products. Research from the industry group from 2020 found 76% of people want to know when food contains sugar substitutes. Two-thirds think that sugar substitutes should be clearly identified as sweeteners on food labels. As it is now, fewer than four in 10 could correctly identify sweeteners from a list of ingredients.
“It is the wild west in the grocery aisle when it comes to sugar substitutes labeling, with confused consumers kept in the dark or left guessing about what artificial sweeteners are in the foods they buy and eat,” Sugar Association President and CEO P. Courtney Gaine said in a written statement.
The FDA opened a similar question up to comments in October 2020. The agency asked how best to address labeling of sweeteners that are metabolized differently than sugar on food packaging. To date, 31 comments have been received on the issue on Regulations.gov, but no action has been taken.
As the sweetener landscape is changing, now is the best time for FDA to make any changes to labeling rules. Many CPG manufacturers are starting the process of formulating products to use the newly available alternatives. If there will be changes to labeling rules, the sooner they are made, the better for manufacturers, many of whom may need to change their labels significantly.