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A long-simmering food fight in the U.S. is about to reach a boil. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is intent on improving its labeling standards to encourage healthier eating. The effort, if it happens as proposed, will shine an uncomfortable light on added sugars, calorie counts and portion sizes, and will likely drive changes in formulations and sizing.
How soon will those changes take effect? On Aug. 1, the FDA closed its public comment period and is now considering revisions to the regulations. Once the regulations are finalized, they are expected to be enforced within a two-year timeframe. That will give food and beverage companies what may very well be a short window to adjust.
What It Means For Added Sugar
Health-conscious label readers should be able to differentiate natural sugars occurring in the food or drink they are about to consume, like fruit juices for example, from the refined versions of sugars that are added to the product, notes SmartBrief’s Smartblog on Food and Beverage. The "added sugar" label will be listed alongside total sugar, already a labeling requirement.
The rules, coupled with a strong consumer trend toward adopting healthier eating, may motivate changes in traditionally formulated beverages. And, in fact, many companies have already begun to experiment with healthier profiles to combat the industry’s steady 16-year sales decline, as IBISWorld noted in “Fizzling Out: Soda Producers Will Refresh Product Lines to Decelerate Falling Demand.”
The rule could affect, in particular, many makers of sugary ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages. But it will also impact some that are widely viewed as better-for-you, such as RTD teas. Many contain added sugar, and in truth more than one would guess from tasting them. That’s because the sugar is doing double duty by first canceling out another additive, acid, such as citric acid, before it sweetens the beverage.
Why Some Drinks Need Added Sugar
Many beverages like teas and coconut water are low-acid by nature, meaning their pH is higher than 4.6. However, when processed in high-acid plants, producers add acid, or acidify the beverage, to lower the pH to less than 4.6 so that the end product can be shelf stable when processed under hot fill conditions. Hot fill remains the most prevalent processing system for producing beverages in the U.S. Sugar is then added to these beverages to overcome the bitterness of acid when they are processed in high-acid, hot-fill facilities.
Ironically, even products you might think of as acidic, like some tomatoes and some fruit juices, don’t quite make the 4.6 pH threshold set by government regulators and actually qualify as low-acid foods. Yet they are processed, in many cases, in high-acid plants, leading their producers to go the “acid-plus-sugar” route.
Government regulators are expected to reinforce the "added sugar" labeling requirement with new portion mandates that assure serving sizes better reflect American consumption behavior and have packages containing two-to-four servings reports, calories and nutritional information for the entire product as well as for one serving. This last mandate comes in response to the fact that consumers often down an entire oversized item rather than treating it as two-to-four separate servings.