March 18, 2015

When Sugar Gets Political: The Fight for Accurate Food Labelling Gets Stickier.

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Food labelling requirements in the U.S. have only been around since the 1990s.

In spite of an increased interest in what is in our food, extensive changes to how food is grown and processed, and an increase in the science of nutrition; they have not significantly changed since then, with the exception of labelling trans fats.

A redesign of the food label was announced by the FDA last year. This redesign includes separating out naturally occurring sugars from added sugars.

This is a good and helpful thing.

As it currently stands, in order to to figure out if a food has added sugar, it is necessary to look at all of the ingredients on the label, understand what all of the polysyllabic words mean, and take a wild guess (if there is sugar listed) as to how much is added versus naturally occurring. For example, if breakfast cereal has raisins, the amount of sugar listed on the label will include the naturally occurring sugar in the raisins as well as the added sugar.

As a health coach, my go to solution for this is to suggest eating real foods rather than processed foods. When talking about sugar, I demonstrate the difference between eating an apple picked off a tree and eating highly processed table sugar. The truth is, though, that it is difficult to avoid processed foods in real life. For those of us who do want to be careful about what we eat, it does not seem to be too much to require the people who make the products to tell us what is actually in them.

If this sounds vaguely like the GMO debate, it is.

It is currently in vogue to be anti-sugar and there are those who compare this to the flip flop that has occurred in nutrition on fats, salt, eggs, etc. I think there are two important things to note. First, nutrition is a growing field and all we can do is act on the best information available at the time and, second, unlike these other foods, we don’t need added sugar. The other foods cited above have redeeming characteristics, while highly processed sugar has none.

All we are talking about is labelling—providing information, not banning, but that argument seems to fall on deaf ears.

The food industry is very powerful in this country. There is no shortage, it appears, of lobbying dollars available to try to convince government that labelling products with actual ingredients is not necessary, and there is no shortage of marketing dollars spent to convince the American public that sugary foods are good for you. There is even a recent campaign that claims soda is good for you—it is not, it has no redeeming characteristics.

There is research money spent developing chemical additives specifically designed to leave us wanting more. There is even a name for it—the bliss point. That is to say, not only is there the possibility that the sugar itself is addictive, but the additional chemicals in sugary foods are specifically designed to create a craving for more of the same.

From here, it becomes even a little absurd.

The cranberry industry, remember those nice guys in the cranberry bog? They object to labelling sugar on products because they have to add more sugar than others because cranberries are not naturally sweet.


They show us in commercials how pure and natural their product is and brag about how delicious it is, but they don’t want to tell us that, in fact, what they sell is highly processed, flavored sugar water?

Here’s what we can do about it all:

  • Right now in the USA, it is not possible to understand all of the ingredients in the products we purchase (whether they are food, personal care products or cleaning products) so reading the labels does not give all of the information, but it is a start.
  • While “if you cannot pronounce all of the ingredients don’t buy it” is not entirely accurate (there is quinoa after all), it is close. Fortunately, there are tools that help. I use the Environmental Working Group’s FoodScores app.
  • Support brands and stores that fully disclose their ingredients.
  • Support freedom of information by supporting requirements that let us know the ingredients in our products.
  • Voting is the way we can make our opinions known, pay attention on this issue and consider it at the polls.
  • Listen to Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” If you don’t buy processed foods, you don’t have to worry about the ingredients on the label (you should still pay attention to whether it is organic or genetically modified by looking at the number on the label. If it starts with 9 it is organic, 3 or 4 is conventional, and 8 is GMO).

Pay attention. I feel like too many of us have been asleep at the wheel on this issue for way too long.

As voices rise up in support of our right to understand what is going into our bodies, join the fight.

Act as if your life is at stake because, in fact, it is.




References/further reading: 

Food industry waging a bitter battle over proposal on added-sugar labels. LA Times. March 17, 2015.




Sneaky Names for MSG: Check Your Labels.

Boycott these Organic & “Natural” Traitors.



Author: Wendy Kuhn

Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Google Images 


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