Every spring, Roger Brown treks into the cold Vermont woods to coax sap from thousands of maple trees, and then spends long days and nights boiling it, adding nothing but his own hard work to make the sweet essence of the northern forest.
The thousands of gallons of maple syrup that Brown, his brother, and two cousins at Slopeside Syrup in Richmond produce each year, he believes, is sugar in its purest, tastiest form — a natural alternative to the artificial sweeteners that have made modern diets so unhealthy.
Which is why he and sugar farmers across New England are fuming over a US Food and Drug Administration requirement that maple syrup producers list the naturally occurring sugars in their products as “added sugars.”
“It’s offensive,” said Brown. “To have the government say, ‘No, this makes sense,’ when it doesn’t. And then to talk to everyone else who says, ‘It’s stupid.’ ”
Those two little words — added sugars — have set off a raging argument between the FDA and boutique producers of maple syrup and honey over the meaning of what would seem to be a simple phrase.
The battle dates back to 2014, when the FDA began requiring nutrition labels to disclose the amount of “added sugars” in a serving of packaged food as part of a broad campaign to promote healthier eating.
In its rule-making, the FDA leaned on definitions from the World Health Organization and US Dietary Guidelines that “sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices” are so-called free, or added, sugars.
The rule triggered tremendous blowback from maple syrup and honey producers, and, for different reasons, from the cranberry industry, including the Massachusetts agricultural giant Ocean Spray. So earlier this year, the FDA proposed a compromise: a footnote on labels for additional information. Pure honey and maple syrup producers, the FDA suggested, could use the footnote to explain the sugars in their products are “naturally occurring,” as opposed to processed or refined. (The footnote would not be available on commercial table syrups made from sweeteners such as corn syrup.)
That effort to placate has only invited a new round of ridicule from honey and maple syrup producers, who see the FDA effort as the epitome of Washington bureaucrats run amok.
“I cannot understand the logic behind using the word ‘added’ to products made from naturally occurring sugars that do not have sugar added to them. That seems akin to putting the words ‘added water’ on a bottle of water,” Blake Harrison, orchard manager at Kent Ridge Orchards in Cornwall, Vt., wrote in comments submitted to the FDA. “It just seems terribly misleading to me, both as a consumer and as a producer of honey and syrup.”
Comments on the FDA’s footnote proposal are due June 15, but the agency has not said when it will make a final decision. The new labeling requirements are scheduled to go into effect in stages: by 2020 for food makers with annual sales of $10 million or more, and by 2021 for smaller companies.
The FDA declined to provide officials for interviews, pointing instead to information it released during the rule-making that includes making a distinction between foods that are rich in nutrients, and those full of empty calories.
“For example, natural sources of sugar present in foods, such as whole fruits, 100 percent juice, and dried fruits, are not considered added sugars because these foods are nutrient rich. However, products such as maple syrups or honey are included in the ‘empty calories’ or ‘calories for other uses’ category” in US food advisories, the FDA wrote in one rebuttal. “Therefore, we decline to exclude sugars from honey and maple syrup from the added sugars definition.”
That very explanation triggered a different argument from producers of another iconic New England product: cranberries.
Here, the issue isn’t semantics; cranberry producers such as Ocean Spray openly acknowledge they add sugars to their juices and other products. Otherwise, consumers might not buy them because the tart, acidic berry in its natural form is unpalatable to most people.
Instead, Ocean Spray said its products meet another FDA criterion: They are rich in important nutrients, so an “added sugars” line could dissuade consumers from buying a product the company argues is good for them.
“Because consumers have been led to believe that ‘added sugar’ signifies that a product is unhealthy, the Proposed Rule will mislead them to think that the cranberry product is a less nutritious choice than a product made from another fruit, even those with more total sugar,” Ocean Spray wrote in its original objection to the FDA language in 2014.
The FDA’s response is a suggested footnote on labels of cranberry products that says, “Sugars added to improve the palatability of naturally tart cranberries,” and notes that dietary guidelines “state that there is room for limited amounts of added sugars in the diet, especially from nutrient dense food like naturally tart cranberries.”
Ocean Spray also wants the FDA to carry through on a promise to mount an educational campaign for consumers.
“We feel that it’s important to make sure consumers understand that there is a full picture here and that we don’t just get tarred with added sugar,” said Kellyanne Dignan, director of global corporate communications at Ocean Spray.
Sean Cash, a nutrition economist at Tufts University, said the general idea behind the FDA proposal is to give consumers a way of seeing “unnecessary” sugars in their foods.
“From a dietary viewpoint, these are sugars that are more easily avoided and less functional,” Cash said. “We’re not getting other vitamins, macro-nutrients, micro-nutrients along for the ride, which is not the case with fruit, for example.”
Cash said it is understandable why maple syrup and honey producers would be upset; the FDA wording implies their naturally pure products have been adulterated. But from a dietary perspective, he said, the FDA’s argument also makes sense.
“In the diet, honey or maple syrup is an added sweetener,” Cash said. “Typically, you put a squeeze of honey into your tea and you put maple syrup on your pancakes. The FDA wants to highlight that these are added sugars in the same way that powdered white cane sugar would be.”
Alex Gailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.