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Cane sugar, in various processed forms.

Cane sugar, in various processed forms.

Romain Behar/Wikimedia

Sugar helps fuel bitter nutrition debate in U.S., U.K.

Efforts are under way to convince both American and British consumers to eat healthier foods—and today, government-led proposals on both sides of the Atlantic are, predictably, generating much debate.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today held a public meeting to discuss draft changes it proposed in February to its Nutrition Facts label, the cliff notes summarizing the amount of fats, protein, carbohydrates, sugars, and more found in food and beverages. FDA hasn’t overhauled the food label since 1993. Since then, obesity rates, eating patterns, and our understanding of various nutrients have changed substantially. “The evidence requires a rethinking,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That’s the one point upon which everyone seems to agree—but reaching consensus looks unlikely. FDA has received more than 4000 comments on its draft proposal and recently extended the comment period to early August.

Like other nutritional advocates, Jacobson, who spoke at today’s meeting in downtown Washington, D.C., embraces FDA’s suggestion to include so-called added sugars—sugars that are added to foods—to labels. “Added sugars exert deleterious health effects beyond empty calories,” agreed Frank Hu, who studies nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston and who also spoke. There’s “compelling evidence,” he argued, that they contribute to obesity and diabetes as well as to other health problems. One question, though, was whether simply listing the amount of added sugars, as FDA proposes, is sufficient. Jacobson wants the agency to include the amount as a percentage of a recommended daily dose—after all, consumers are unlikely to deduce whether 1 gram, 5 grams, or 15 grams are problematic unless they’re provided context. FDA says it lacks a scientific basis for setting such a limit.

That’s one place FDA diverges from the United Kingdom’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. It released a behemoth 366-page report earlier today recommending that the population as a whole have an average consumption of “free sugar” that’s 5% of the diet. (Free sugar includes added sugars, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit juices.) In both countries, people consume far more added sugar than is considered healthy; in the United States, it makes up on average 16% of calories.

Industry groups are not happy with some of the recommendations. “We believe certain aspects of the proposal lack some merit, particularly the addition of added sugar,” said Donna Garren, who was representing the American Frozen Food Institute at the FDA meeting. A BBC story about the U.K. proposal quoted the sugar industry saying that “demonising one ingredient” will not solve the epidemic of obesity.

FDA is proposing numerous other changes to its nutrition label. Among them: dropping the requirement to list how much vitamin A and vitamin C are in foods, because evidence suggests deficiencies in those vitamins are rare. Instead, FDA wants manufacturers to list how much vitamin D and potassium their foods include, because of the importance of the first in bone health and the second in controlling blood pressure.

As nutritional science advances and, in some cases, becomes increasingly nuanced, there’s concern that efforts to simplify labels so consumers can quickly understand them risk going too far. FDA, for example, wants to enlarge the calorie count in foods. Hu understands this instinct, but points out that calories aren’t everything—highlighting them risks sending customers to buy products with artificial sweeteners that are less healthy, rather than high-calorie foods such as nuts and seeds that are more healthy. FDA is proposing removing the “Calories from Fat” label, because more and more evidence suggests that certain fats are good for you.

After lunch today, speaker after speaker stood up to comment on FDA’s plan, usually suggesting the agency was either not doing enough or going too far. Should sodium recommendations be lower? Should phosphorus be added to labels, as a useful guide for people with kidney disease who may need to keep an eye on phosphorus intake? Should FDA’s food labels try to reduce intake of saturated fat? The list goes on—along with the research parsing the many variables of our diets.