Saturday, August 18, 2012


The front of the pack labeling regulations are supposed to help the consumers to understand better about many aspects of the contents inside including nutritive value. However due to practical reasons there is a limit as to how much information can be loaded on the labels and there are doubts regarding the effectiveness of the present regulations. In a country like India such declaration printed in English has very little value as majority of the population are English illiterate and the information provided probably does not serve the consumer community much. Still the current labeling practices do serve a purpose in documenting the nature of the product for quality and safety agencies to administer food laws. Having established beyond a shadow of doubt regarding the role played by sugar in progressively deteriorating health status of human beings in many countries, knowing the sugar content in a product helps the consumer to pick and choose those with least sugar levels among processed food products. One of the new proposals now being considered to improve the effectiveness of labeling involves declaration of "added sugar" in the product during processing. Whether this will serve any purpose or how added sugar can be distinguished from naturally present sugar are issues which require to be deliberated before implementing the same. Here is a take on this new rumblings in the food processing sector with a potential to polarize the stakeholders further in the coming months. 

The American Bakers Assn. objects to the plan, saying (among other things) that since added and natural sugars are chemically the same, to enforce the labels the FDA would have to be able to inspect companies' recipes and they don't have the authority to do that. At the FDA website, you can read about the FDA's proposal and view comments that have been submitted. The National Dairy Council says such labels could lead to consumer confusion and unintended consequences, such as people avoiding nutritious foods that have sugars added to make them more tasty. They note that you can already see how much sugar is in food from the info on food packages right now. The National Milk Producers Federation worries about consumer confusion too. The Sugar Assn. recommends the study is not done, for a variety of reasons: They say the effect of added sugar on obesity is overstated, the FDA wouldn't have the regulatory power to act on this info, and that "it is in the public interest that FDA maintain its focus on the prominence of calories, maintain its science-based positions regarding added sugars labeling, and not further confuse consumers by adding unwarranted information to the [Nutrition Facts Panel]." And so it goes on … the National Confectioners Assn.opposes the research, the American Beverage Assn. opposes it.......while......on the flip side, the American Heart Assn."strongly supports the inclusion of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts Label" and writes that "In addition to the AHA, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines,, and countless other sources of dietary guidance recommend that consumers limit consumption of added sugars. Yet this can be difficult to do because added sugars are not currently included on the Nutrition Facts label. While 'sugars' is listed, the Nutrition Facts label does not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruit or milk, which are associated with other important components inherent to foods such as vitamins and minerals, and added sugars, which are not." The Center for Science in the Public Interest is for the study, The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University is for the study too. It is, of course, true that people can be misled if they overly focus on one particular facet of a food and that current labels on food packages are very good at helping us get confused that way. "Low-fat" items can contain just as many calories as higher-fat foods, and "organic" processed foods can be just as junky as any other kind, and just because Lucky Charms are made with whole grains, that does not make them a health food.

In a society where daily diet is made of processed foods as high as 70-80%, extent of sugar added by the industry during formulation may be critical and is controllable either voluntarily or by mandate. In such an environment declaration of added sugar can at least make the processor sensitive to the level of sugar incorporated and there is a possibility that voluntary reduction can be achieved. This is already happening with respect to salt and there is no reason it cannot happen with sugar too. It is not understandable as to why sugar needs to be added in high concentrations when many products can be still palatable at sugar levels of 10-15%. The current proposal to force the processors to declare the extent of sugar added can even set in motion competition among the processors to reduce added sugar as much as possible to gain consumer patronage. Technically it may be difficult to estimate in a finished product how much sugar has been added but as the processor knows the truth he can be forced to declare the same. While voluntary declaration of added sugar can be immediately enforced, monitory regime can be thought of later when reliable and simpler techniques are available for differentiating between natural and added sugar.  


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