March 5, 2015

The FDA Overreaches with New Food Label

Sherzod Abdukadirov

Former Research Fellow
Summary

The most prominent and bitterly controversial change in the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) proposed new food label is a mandatory declaration for added sugars content. Some consumer advocates argue that added sugar is one of the main culprits behind the skyrocketing obesity rates, particularly in children and adolescents. Businesses maintain that implementing the change would be prohibitively costly. Yet the point both advocates and opponents seem to miss is that the food label regulation basically assumes that an average American cannot distinguish between soda and fruit juice.

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The most prominent and bitterly controversial change in the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) proposed new food label is a mandatory declaration for added sugars content. Some consumer advocates argue that added sugar is one of the main culprits behind the skyrocketing obesity rates, particularly in children and adolescents. Businesses maintain that implementing the change would be prohibitively costly. Yet the point both advocates and opponents seem to miss is that the food label regulation basically assumes that an average American cannot distinguish between soda and fruit juice.

Note that the total sugar content is already on the label. Thus, the FDA rule implicitly claims that there is something specifically harmful about added sugars as opposed to the naturally occurring ones. Yet the evidence that the FDA marshals to support its added sugar declaration contradicts its assumption. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, added sugars do not contribute to obesity more than any other source of calories. In addition, the Institute of Medicine report states that "added sugars are not chemically different from naturally occurring sugars."

So why target added sugars? While they do not cause obesity more than other sources of calories, they do account for a large portion of calories in a typical diet. Most importantly, consumers get most of their added sugars through drinking soda, which has high added sugars but very few nutrients. Thus, public health officials are concerned that added sugars may be displacing other nutrients and leading to overconsumption of calories.

According to the research cited by the FDA, what leads to obesity is not added sugar but excessive consumption of soda. Consequently, the FDA's real target is soda. It hopes that by attracting consumers' attention to the high added sugars content, the label will help consumers opt for healthier drinks like milk or fruit juice that are a good source of key nutrients. Since the sugar in the other drinks is mostly natural, it will appear under the total sugars line and not under added sugars. Another way to achieve the same goal would be for the FDA to simply advise consumers to drink less soda or to switch to fruit juice.

Instead, the FDA chose to take a heavy-handed approach and target all foods with added sugars, regardless of their overall nutritional quality. The agency's approach is in line with similarly overreaching tactics targeting sodas, such as New York's infamous attempt to ban large size sodas and Berkeley, Calif.'s recently adopted soda tax.

You might ask: What is the harm in including added sugars on the label? Since food manufacturers will have to modify the label anyway, including another small change shouldn't be problematic. Turns out, the fact that added sugars are chemically identical to naturally occurring sugars makes it difficult and expensive to track added sugars. There is no lab test that could readily tell the food manufacturer — or more importantly the FDA inspector — what portion of sugars in a food item is added and what portion is natural. The only way to track added sugars is through extensive bureaucratic recordkeeping, which is far more expensive than a lab test. To justify such expense, regulators better be confident that the rule would actually help consumers. Unfortunately, the evidence presented by the FDA points to the contrary.