Should foods high in added sugar be disqualified from making nutrient content and health claims?

Nutrient content claims such as 'healthy' should not be permitted on products high in added sugar, argues the Union of Concerned Scientists

High levels of added sugar should disqualify foods from being able to make health claims, or nutrient content claims such as ‘healthy’ or ‘high fiber,’ argues a citizen’s petition filed last week by the nonprofit advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The petition, which you can download HERE, notes that in the past, the FDA has resisted such requests, partly on the grounds that there wasn’t a daily reference value (DRV) for added sugar.

However, things have recently changed, it notes: “With the 2016 revisions to the Nutrition Facts label, the FDA has set DRVs for added sugar at 25g for ages one to three and 50g for ages four and up [10% of energy/calories]. Now that the FDA has DRVs for added sugar, and overwhelming evidence has illustrated that excessive added sugar consumption is linked to several chronic diseases, it is time for the FDA to reconsider…”

We’re calling for an ‘FDA-determined’ disqualifying level of added sugar

It adds: “It sends dangerous mixed messages to consumers for guidance and nutrition standards on the one hand to limit added sugars and yet to continue to allow food companies to make health claims on sugar-rich processed foods.”

Asked what the disqualifying level should be, UCS food systems and health analyst Sarah Reinhardt, MPH, RD, told FoodNavigator-USA: “The letter calls for an ‘FDA-determined’ disqualifying level of added sugar.

“Limits are typically based on Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACC), under the assumption that nutrient limits based on given food’s RACC will contribute to the diet in such a way that the total amount of that nutrient does not exceed a daily recommendation or allowance."

While the FDA has 180 days to respond to citizen’s petitions, and has not commented on this specific proposal, it has launched a probe into the conditions of use for ‘healthy’ nutrient content claims, prompted in part by a citizen’s petition filed by Snack maker KIND, while correspondence with KIND suggests it may also be open to a broader re-evaluation of the criteria underpinning other claims.

ADDED SUGARS: “In 2015, the Department of Human Health and Services (DHHS) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) followed the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s guidance and responded to the scientific evidence by recommending, for the first time in the history of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, that added sugars constitute less than 10% of a person’s daily caloric intake.

“In 2015, the WHO strongly recommended that adults and children limit added sugars intake to less than 10% of their total daily caloric intake and advised that a reduction to 5% or less would be more beneficial.

“The UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s working group on carbohydrates intake … recommended reducing intake to 5% of daily calories…. [and] The American Heart Association recently recommended that the two-to-five-year age group avoid consumption of added sugars in food and beverages altogether.”

Union of Concerned Scientists citizen petition, January 25, 2017

Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, told KIND last April : "We agree with you that our regulations concerning nutrient content claims are due for a reevaluation in light of evolving nutrition research.”

Dr Marion Nestle: ‘I wish they had given some examples of health or nutrient-content claims on high-sugar foods marketed to children’

So is the petition a good idea?

Dr Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, told FoodNavigator-USA that, “With all of the focus on the need to reduce sugar intake these days, this makes sense in theory.”

In practice, however, she added, “I’d like to see a more convincing case. I wish they had given some examples of health or nutrient-content claims on high-sugar foods marketed to children. I also wonder what they think an appropriate cut-point might be.”  

The FDA has to prioritize everything it does and pick its battles carefully

As to where this likely ranked on the FDA’s priority list, she said: “The FDA has its hands full with ‘healthy’ and, no doubt, figuring out which two regulations it will have to eliminate in order to issue any new one [as per President Trump’s January 30 executive order].

So does the arrival of the Trump administration mean that speculating about what the FDA may or may not do in future is probably unhelpful at this juncture?

She added: “Totally pointless. The FDA has to prioritize everything it does and pick its battles carefully if it wants to accomplish anything under the reign of our current bully-in-chief.”

Further reading: 

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