For an agency whose stated mission includes being “responsible for…helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need” to maintain and improve their health, the FDA has an odd way of showing it. The FDA announced a proposal to include a daily recommended value (DRV) for “added sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label of packaged foods and dietary supplements.
How much sugar do we need?
The “added sugars” designation has nothing to do with the amount of sugar that already occurs naturally in the food, but are any sugars (sucrose, fructose, etc.) that are added during processing. So while the sugar found in an apple would be considered naturally occurring, agave—a sweetener isolated from cactus—added to another product would be considered an added sugar, as would sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. (If a product contains an entry for added sugars, that’s an immediate indicator that it’s a highly processed food.)
The FDA proposes that the daily intake of calories from added sugars should not exceed 10% of total calories. Under this new proposal, every American should consume 50 grams of added sugars every day—over and above the sugar content that occurs naturally in the food.
This is a surprising departure from previous messaging by the agency. Previously, the FDA proposed that the nutrition label declare how much added sugar a food contained but refused to establish a DRV, claiming that there was no “sound scientific basis for the establishment of a quantitative intake recommendation [from] which a DRV could be derived.”
Why the reversal?
The agency now claims that the scientific evidence presented by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has convinced them that there is indeed a “sound scientific basis” for an added sugar DRV. Really? A “sound scientific basis” for eating processed food that contains 200 calories of high fructose corn syrup every day, in addition to whatever sugars are already in the food naturally?
Food companies, and of course the general public, will regard this DRV as a recommendation to consume added sugar! Did this really come from the dietary committee—or from lobbying efforts by Big Food? Creating a DRV for added sugars is a tacit federal approval of putting extra sugars in processed foods, and that’s something we don’t need. The federal government already subsidizes sugar with import quotas and crop subsidies. The FDA—an agency charged with protecting public health—shouldn’t become yet another sugar sales agent.
Some consumers mistake products with added sugar as healthy snacks when they are anything but. For example, many brands of yogurt, especially low-fat yogurt, have more sugar than a Twinkie. Or take Vitaminwater: one 20 oz. bottle contains as much sugar as three Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Many “gluten free” products are especially loaded with added sugar.
Let’s also keep in mind that the average American already consumes three pounds of sugar every week. It has been estimated that this has led to chronic diseases whose treatment cost an extra $1 trillion in healthcare spending between 1995 and 2012.
Sugar’s negative health effects
Further, the myriad dangers and health conditions caused by sugar—and the rather abysmal track record of nutritional advice offered by the federal government—are enough to tell us that the FDA shouldn’t be approving a 10% DRV number for added sugar. Particularly since the World Health Organization slashed its recommendation last year for daily total sugar intake, including from fruit, from 10% of total calories to 5% of daily calories.
Any integrative doctor or nutrition professional worth his or her salt will advise patients (in most cases) to strictly limit their sugar intake, and to eliminate added sugar completely—in particular artificial sweeteners and highly processed forms like high fructose corn syrup. Dr. David Williams doesn’t mince words: “I can’t put it more plainly: sugar kills.”
DRVs in general are flawed. Each person has different requirements for different nutrients, and consumers should consult a nutritionist or an integrative physician to determine the ideal balance of nutrients specific to his or her own body.
In short, the FDA’s proposal on added sugar is not so sweet.