No (Added) Sugar and Yet it is Sweet; Sugar Association Petitions FDA to Require Transparency about Industry’s Use of Alternative Sweeteners

By Riëtte van Laack

On June 3, 2020, the Sugar Association (SA) filed a Petition with FDA.  The Petition calls on FDA to

  1. improve the labeling of alternative sweeteners in the ingredients list on food labels,
  2. take steps to address the “particular difficulties raised by the unquantified presence of nonnutritive sweeteners in the diets of children,”
  3. require disclosures of potential gastrointestinal effects of various sweeteners at meaningful quantities,
  4. take action against what SA claims are “misleading or otherwise unlawful” added sugars claims, and
  5. issue guidance to industry specifying that no/reduced added sugars claims be accompanied by appropriate disclosures.

SA notes that the new “added sugar” labeling requirement (a major aspect of the updated nutrition labeling regulation discussed here) seems to have led food manufacturers to replace sugar with what SA calls “Alternative Sweeteners,” defined as “Substances used as substitutes for sucrose and other mono-and disaccharides in food and beverage products to provide sweetness. Alternative Sweeteners provide less than 4 calories per gram and include all low and non-calorie sweeteners including high-intensity sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and sweeteners used for bulking purposes such as sugar alcohols.”  According to SA, this definition of Alternative Sweeteners would include certain fibers,  such as polydextrose and chicory root fiber which, according to SA, are added to foods for their sweetening effect.

Petitioner asserts that consumers do not realize that the product contains alternative sweeteners because their presence is not called out and consumers do not recognize the chemical names for such substances.  Therefore, Petitioner request that FDA issue guidance providing that the parenthetical term “(Sweetener)” be included after the common or usual name of each sweetener used in a food that is not already required to be identified as a sweetener or is required to be disclosed on the Nutrition Facts label.

SA claims that no/reduced added sugar claims  lead consumers to conclude that the reformulated products are healthier.  SA questions that conclusion for various reasons.

Among other things, Petitioner brings up the issue of safety of high intensity or nonnutritive sweeteners for children.   Petitioner suggests that parents are unknowingly feeding their kids products that include nonnutritive sweeteners.  Its ask that FDA require disclosure of the  type and quantity (in mg) of each non-nutritive sweetener on products consumed by children.

Petitioner further raises the concern that some alternative sweeteners, including sugar alcohols but also products such as polydextrose and chicory fiber (inulin), may cause gastrointestinal discomfort.  It asks that FDA require disclosure of  gastrointestinal effects of various sweeteners, at minimum thresholds of effect (which it suggests is 10 g per day).

Petitioner provides several examples of products with reduced sugar claims but appear but do not significantly less calories. It asks that FDA take immediate action to stop these claims.   To address the alleged misimpression that a food with no or reduced added sugar claims has lower calories, Petitioner further requests that FDA issue guidance requiring that any no/reduced sugar claim be accompanied with the following disclosure “Not lower in calories” unless the reformulated products have 25% fewer calories than the reference product.  In addition, it asks that FDA require that any such food product include (on the principal display panel) a statement ““Sweetened with [name of Sweeteners(s)]” when sugar alternatives are included.

This Petition brings up various issues each of which can be expected to generate more discussion.  We will be monitoring comments and possible FDA action.