In March 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its proposal for updating the Nutrition Facts label that appears on most food packages in the U.S. The FDA proposes that the label — first introduced 20 years ago and largely unchanged since — be changed in its graphic design and what it measures to reconsider information about serving sizes and nutritional content.
Perhaps the most contested aspect of the FDA’s proposal for the new label is added sugars. This past July, the FDA amended its original proposal — which would require listing the amount of added sugars in grams — to also require listing how much a food contains relative to a total daily limit — a measure called the percent daily value, or %DV. FDA’s recommended %DV calls for the daily intake of calories from added sugars to not exceed 10 percent of total calories.
As much of the food industry is now preparing for the likely change, there are five important questions about added sugars for food manufacturers to consider.
1. What is an added sugar?
Sugars serve many uses in food processing. Not only does it sweeten or improve flavor, it also can be used as a preservative. Sugar helps jellies and jams from spoiling, aids fermentation in breads and alcohol, and also keeps baked goods to stay fresher longer.
The current label requires declaration of sugars. The proposed new rule would require declaration of added sugars as well, indented under sugars, to help consumers understand how much sugar is naturally occurring and how much has been added to the product. Currently, the FDA food label regulations do not have a definition for added sugars. Under its new labeling rules, it defines added sugars as “sugars that are either added during the processing of foods or during packaging.” These can include:
- Sugars, such as cane sugar, beet sugar, brown sugar, dextrose, glucose, invert sugar, lactose and maltose
- Syrups, such as high fructose corn syrup, crystalline fructose, malitol syrup and maple syrup
- Naturally occurring sugars that are isolated from a whole food and concentrated so that sugar is the primary component, such as fruit juice concentrates
- Other caloric sweeteners, including honey, molasses, corn sweetener and table sugar
2. How do laboratories test for added sugars?
It might be surprising to most people to learn that there is currently no laboratory test that can differentiate between a naturally occurring sugar and an added sugar. The FDA acknowledges that because there is a lack of physiological differences between the two types of sugar, there is no current analytical methodology for detecting the difference.
Because there is no chemical analysis to differentiate added sugars, the FDA proposes “an alternative method to assess compliance ... such as maintenance and review of records.”
3. How are sugars differentiated on a food label?
The most widely used method for producing Nutrition Facts labels is database analysis. This is done by taking a food product’s detailed recipe and entering it into a software program.
Should the FDA pass the new label regulations and include the added sugars requirement, then software programs will have an added column for added sugars and the foods that are known added sugars, per the FDA’s definition, will be flagged and their sugar total will fall under an added sugar category. For example, 1 Tbsp (14g) brown sugar has 13g of Sugar in the current software would be 13g of added sugars.
4. Will there be any lag time between FDA rules and database information?
Leading software providers are already making preparations for the new FDA label and have begun making updates and changes to its classification of food items. However, because many recipes include mixed or processed ingredients, such as enriched flour, cereal and vanilla extract, software databases will not be able to categorize these foods until suppliers have provided updated information.
Often times, the nutrition label or 100g report of a mixed or processed food is manually entered based on due diligence when completing an analysis. This happens when the software does not have a specific product in its database. Many recipes depend on this for their analysis. But until those manufacturers have updated their nutrition label with added sugars, this cannot be done.
This same kind of informational lag could happen with two other FDA-proposed listings of new nutrients: Vitamin D and potassium. However, with these nutrients, laboratory testing is available for those companies that do not want to wait for their suppliers to update their nutrition information.
5. How will this affect timelines for food businesses?
The FDA has proposed allowing six months for the industry to prepare for the changes, once their final ruling is issued. This is intended for database analysis software companies and laboratories to update their programs so that food manufacturers can begin to update their labels.
Food manufacturers need not panic about the added sugars change. The FDA has proposed giving food manufacturers two years to comply after the initial six months of industry preparation. However, a bit of catch up time is to be expected as adding mixed and processed foods used in recipes will slow down the update process. Above all, manufacturers should be ready to ask suppliers to make their label change as soon as possible. The sooner they change their labels, the sooner you can change yours.
It’s also a good idea to establish a good working relationship with a reputable food labeling and laboratory testing company. As with added sugars, other changes to the FDA Nutrition Facts label are likely to be forthcoming, and having a reliable partner will ensure accurate and timely FDA compliance.
About the authors
Roger Legg is co-founder of RL Food Testing Laboratory, and its senior chemist. Beth Vessels is a director at RL Food Testing, and its resident regulatory expert.
RL Food Testing Laboratory provides nutrition analysis and creates FDA-compliant Nutrition Facts labels for food products intended for sale in the U.S. It also offers a full range of services, including shelf-life analysis, allergen and ingredient statements, pet food testing, and microbiological testing for pathogens, among others. Founded in 2004, the company has served thousands of food entrepreneurs, owners of small food businesses, contract packers, restaurants, and national and international manufacturers. For more information, visit https://rlfoodtestinglaboratory.com. Follow on Twitter: @RLfoodtesting