National Consumers League

Sweetened with what? Lack of transparency and misleading claims make reducing added sugars confusing

Many of us are probably trying to heed the advice of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reduce our consumption of added sugars. FDA has made “Added Sugars” content per serving a mandatory line on the Nutrition Facts label and has established a Daily Value of 50g of added sugars based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. FDA’s actions, however, have had some unintended consequences.

The agency’s decision to include “Added Sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label has created a marketing incentive for food and beverage manufacturers to replace added sugars with alternative or substitute sweeteners.  Leading brand name products bear prominent claims such as “No Added Sugars,” “Zero Sugar,” and “Reduced Sugars,” implying that the new product is healthier than the original without disclosing how the sugar has been reduced. As detailed in a recent Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) letter and an industry citizen’s petition filed with the FDA (Docket No. FDA-2020-P-1478), consumers have little idea that when they purchase a no/reduced sugar product, they may be buying a food that contains alternative sweeteners, highly processed, or artificial substances.

Most of us following the FDA’s advice aren’t looking to load up on combinations of new-fangled sweetening agents, sugar alcohols and other synthetic substances. CSPI’s January 9, 2020 letter asks that FDA enforce standards for nutrient content claims related to added or reduced sugar. We support that request.

The petition was filed by the Sugar Association, whose members are clearly concerned about competition from alternative sweeteners. But their complaint to the FDA makes a strong case for transparency by citing products that make no/reduced added sugars on the front label, but fail to disclose that sugars have been replaced by other sweeteners—many unfamiliar, some artificial, and some with known glycemic index effects. For example:

  • Rebel Ice Cream claims “No Sugar Added” but is sweetened with Erythritol, Chicory Root Fiber, Vegetable Glycerin, and Monk Fruit;
  • Kool-Aid Jammers claim “Zero Sugar” but are sweetened with Sucralose and Acesulfame Potassium;
  • Oikos Greek Yogurt claims “No Added Sugar and No Artificial Sweeteners” but contains Stevia and Chicory Root Fiber;
  • Quest Nutrition’s Hero Blueberry Cobbler Bar claims “1g” of sugar but is sweetened with Allulose, Erythritol, Sucralose, and Steviol Glycosides (Stevia);
  • Snack Pack Juicy Gels claim “Sugar Free” but are sweetened with Sucralose;
  • ONE Maple Glazed Doughnut Bar claims “1g” of sugar but is sweetened with Maltitol, Vegetable Glycerin, and Sucralose;
  • Snack Pack Chocolate Pudding Cups claim “Sugar Free” but are sweetened with Sorbitol, Maltitol, Sucralose, and Acesulfame Potassium;
  • Welch’s Fruit Snacks claim “Reduced Sugar” but are sweetened with Chicory Root Fiber and Maltitol Syrup;

The petition, among other steps, urges FDA to require that such substances be clearly disclosed as a “sweetener” in the ingredient list. That step seems reasonable to insure transparency and ensure that consumers know what they are purchasing.

The petition also calls for action against outright misleading claims regarding sugar content. The CSPI letter and industry petition blows the whistle on deceptive claims like these:

  • The reduced sugar version of Skippy peanut butter has 1/3 less sugar than its traditional counterpart but has more calories and fat per serving than the regular version. Despite having 1g less added sugars, the reformulated product provides 20 more calories per 2 tablespoon serving. The claim on the front label is misleading because it implies that the reformulated version is healthier due to the reduction in added sugars when the reformulated version is higher in calories.
  • Welch’s Fruit Snacks Reduced Sugar version claims 25 percent less sugar than the original version. The claim is predicated upon a reduction in the serving size of the reformulated version of the product. The original version has a serving size of 25.5g while the Reduced Sugar version has decreased to 22.7g.
  • Oikos Triple Zero blended Greek Yogurt makes a “0 Added Sugar” claim but has more calories per serving than the company’s regular Greek yogurt. The zero added sugars product, which is sweetened with Stevia Leaf Extract, has 120 calories per serving while the company’s original version has 110 calories per serving.

Statements like these turn the supermarket aisle into a minefield of misleading claims that are not good for consumers who are trying to sort out health values. We urge the FDA to prohibit misleading labeling of alternative sweeteners in processed foods and beverages and to grant the citizens’ petition for greater transparency in food labeling when it comes to these artificial sweeteners.

Read our full letter to the FDA on alternative sweeteners, here.