A Piece of Sugar Cane

Food Tech: Sugar 2.0 Coming Your Way

After two decades of really bad publicity, sugar is reinventing itself. Just last week, FDA finalized its rules for allulose, a rare but natural form of sugar. It looks and tastes a lot like regular sugar, though it’s about one third less sweet. But the really sweet deal is that the final rule from FDA says you can add all the allulose you want to processed foods and it doesn’t count as added sugar. In fact, it doesn’t even count for the labeling for sugar content at all. Welcome to the world of Sugar 2.0. Brought to you by the wonders of food technology.

FDA Grapples with Sugar 2.0

This final rule from FDA is only a hint of what’s to come. At the same time the agency finalized these rules, it asked for comments on how to deal with Sugar 2.0 – innovations in sugar technology. For example, how should the agency label other new forms of sugar? What might their physiological effects be?

Food technology companies are looking for ways to give food companies ways to sell sweet and appealing products, without the bad rap of a lot of added sugar. A perfect solution is to find sugars that don’t count as sugar. So FDA is getting a lot of questions, says the agency:

“We have received multiple requests from industry to treat these sugars that are metabolized differently than traditional sugars as distinct from traditional sugars for the purposes of nutrition labeling.”

That’s why they’re asking for public comments. But this subject is so deep in the weeds that you can be sure most of the comments will come from industry. Maybe some academics and food policy geeks will weigh in, too.

The Race to Redesign Sugar

In The New Yorker, Nicola Twilley writes about the race for Sugar 2.0. She describes:

“An industry dominated by multinational corporations all spending large amounts on research and development in pursuit of the same goal: to continue selling countless sweet things in a world that is increasingly wary of sugar.”

The food industry finds itself between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, its customers have a taste for products with plenty of sweetness. We’re biologically wired for it. But on the other hand, public sentiment against too much sugar is strong. Regulators are reinforcing it, too. That’s why food labels now have to disclose added sugars. Twilley writes:

“The problem is that sugar isn’t easy to replace. Despite scientists’ best efforts in the past century, none of the artificial alternatives that have been developed are quite as irresistible, let alone as versatile in the kitchen. The looming impact of new nutrition standards, combined with regulatory pressure and public sentiment, has led to something of a panic in the industry, and a flurry of innovation.”

Expect the Unexpected

Will innovations in food technology solve this problem? Will Sugar 2.0 allow us to consume ever more sweet and wonderful foods without health consequences?

We have our doubts. More likely, we will find that changing up the food supply is not such a simple task. When we re-engineer our food, the results are often not what we expect. Remember Crisco and trans fats?

Be ready for unexpected twists and turns as Sugar 2.0 comes your way.

Click here for Twilley’s piece on the race to redesign sugar, here and here for more on FDA’s request for input.

A Piece of Sugar Cane, painting by Marianne North / WikiArt

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October 25, 2020