Business

FDA retreats: Maple syrup may not need an ‘added sugars’ label, after all

“Added sugars” labels had been planned for maple syrup and honey.
Lisa Rathke/Associated Press/File 2018
“Added sugars” labels had been planned for maple syrup and honey.

The Food and Drug Administration will rethink its controversial proposal to require maple syrup and honey producers to label their products as containing added sugars.

The retreat comes amid an uproar from producers, who complained the proposed rule would be misleading and nonsensical.

“We’re really excited to see that the FDA is listening to us on this and that they’re, hopefully, going to give us a chance to create a label that doesn’t confuse what we’re trying to market and sell,” said Chris White, founder and fifth-generation maple sugar maker at Mount Mansfield Maple Products in Winooski, Vt. “Hopefully, it’s a little more fair.”

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The battle dates back to 2014, when the FDA began requiring products to disclose “added sugars” on nutrition labels as part of a broader campaign to increase awareness about the ill effects of excess sugar consumption. The agency was relying on a definition 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.

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Makers of single-ingredient products such as pure maple syrup and honey protested that their products do not contain added sugar, saying such labels would confuse consumers.

Cranberry producers also objected, for a different reason: Their naturally tart fruit, they argued, is unpalatable for most people without added sugar.

In February, the FDA suggested keeping the “added sugars” label on these products, but adding a footnote outside the nutrition facts panel to clarify that the sugars in pure honey and maple are “naturally occurring,” as opposed to processed or refined. The agency would allow cranberry producers to add a footnote promoting the health benefits of their product.

The FDA, which extended the comment period for its footnote proposal until June 15, received more than 3,000 comments. In light of the backlash, it plans to propose an alternative rule.

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“The feedback that FDA has received is that the approach laid out in the draft guidance does not provide the clarity that the FDA intended,” the agency wrote in a press release. “It is important to FDA that consumers are able to effectively use the new Nutrition Facts label to make informed, healthy dietary choices.

Much of the confusion stems from the definition of “added sugars.” Industry producers have argued that most consumers believe “added sugars” are those such as high fructose corn syrup or table sugar that have been added to a product.

The FDA, though, is concerned about diet: Its definition includes any “unnecessary” sweeteners, including naturally occurring sugars. A spoonful of honey added to a cup of tea or a dollop of pure maple syrup to pancakes counts. US dietary guidelines recommend that no more than 10 percent of a person’s daily calories come from added sugars.

“In a perfect world for me, the FDA would take out the word ‘including’ and just say ‘added sugars,’ and then we would be able to say zero because we haven’t added any sugar to it,” White said.

Meanwhile, major cranberry producers, including Massachusetts-based Ocean Spray, continue to work with the FDA.

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“We look forward to working with the FDA and our industry partners to ensure the best approach for consumers so they can understand the full nutritional profile of cranberry products,” said Kellyanne Dignan, a spokeswoman for the growers cooperative.

Alex Gailey can be reached at alexandra.gailey@globe.com.