Measuring Cup

Getting Tangled Up in Added Sugar

How much added sugar is in a five-pound bag of sugar? It’s taken a while, but FDA has come up with a final answer to this challenging question. None. It’s all sugar, nothing added. The same goes for honey, molasses, or maple syrup. It turns out that the definition of “added” can be quite tricky.

Recently, FDA issued it new guidance for how to label for added sugars on sugars, syrups, and cranberries. Cranberries?

Does “Added” Mean Bad?

The original idea behind this was to provide consumers with information for better choices. How much sugar are they putting in my yogurt? There’s nothing really magic about added sugars, except that someone added it, so maybe you don’t really need it.

But all the talk about added sugars has brought us some tortured logic. Crunch the numbers and you can find a correlation between added sugars in a person’s diet and the risk of death from heart disease. Quanhe Yang, Zefeng Zhang, and Edward Gregg published such a study in 2014. It’s a good observation, but it’s merely a correlation. Added sugars don’t have effects on the body that are any different from other sugar. It’s all sugar.

Even so, you see people arguing that there must be something different about added sugars. For example, David Ludwig argues that added sugars might explain why people ate more and gained weight in a study of ultra-processed foods. Nevermind that the total sugar was no greater, added sugars have special effects.

Does It Mean Unnecessary?

You might be wondering, why are cranberries in this new guidance? The short answer is that cranberries need sugar. They’re tart and unpalatable without adding sugar. So FDA is bowing to political pressure from the cranberry lobby to let them explain that added sugar in cranberries isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Cranberry lobbyists earned their keep on this one.

Does It Mean Someone Added It?

It turns out that you don’t actually have to add the sugar to get caught up in this mess. Oatly recently got into trouble for claiming that its oat milk has no added sugars. True, they don’t add sugar, but when they make their product, starch in the oats breaks down into sugar. So the Better Business Bureau ruled that Oatly must stop making the claim.

Sensible Decisions?

Bottom line, added sugars aren’t magic. But they do make products more appealing, so people will eat more and buy more. Disclosing it makes sense for just one simple reason. It’s information people want.

Will sensible decisions follow from this? That remains to be seen.

Click here for more from the FDA, here for more from the baking industry, and here for more on the Oatly problem.

Measuring Cup, photograph © Alex Reynolds / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


July 7, 2019

One Response to “Getting Tangled Up in Added Sugar”

  1. July 07, 2019 at 7:41 am, John DiTraglia said:

    that’s good