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On Added Sugars, Canada Gets Right What the U.S. Got Wrong

Last month, I wrote about how the new nutritional labels might end up making Americans fatter and sicker. Particularly dangerous, in my opinion, is the addition of the “added sugars” requirement. Having both total sugar and added sugars may confuse some consumers, some of whom might think that foods with no or low added sugars are okay to indulge in, without thinking about the total amount of sugar in the item. Canadian health officials seem to have worried about the same issues when they considered, and ultimately rejected, requiring added sugars be listed on nutritional facts panels.

Back in June, Health Canada announced plans to revise nutritional labeling requirements for foods sold in the country. As with the FDA’s proposed label change, Health Canada’s changes are intended to make deciphering the nutritional value of foods easier for consumers and hopefully aid them in making healthier choices. “Our Government is breaking new ground with our proposal on the labelling of sugars on foods sold in Canada,” said Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health in the press release. “Nowhere else in the world will consumers have the kind of information Canadians will have about the sugars contained in the foods they eat. This information will help them understand how much sugar is in a product, whether it’s a little or a lot of sugar, and where the sugar comes from.” Yet, Canada, unlike the U.S., decided that putting “added sugars” on food labels would be less helpful and more harmful for consumers. 

Health Canada’s Regulatory Impact Analysis statement noted that in experiments with labels containing added sugars, consumers were confused about the information on carbohydrates and total sugars. They also found that “the inability of analytical methods to distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars would contribute to significant compliance and enforcement challenges.” Our FDA also conducted its own experiment with the added sugars label. And while their study found that “a number” of participants were confused about the difference between sugars and added sugars, it doesn’t yet seem to have convinced FDA to drop the requirement. But the comment period on this proposed revision is open until October 13.

Glenn Lammi at the Washington Legal Foundation revealed that an unnamed former director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Food Labeling called added sugar the “the ‘bête noir’ of this decade for many in the nutrition community.” That certainly seems true for those health advocates focused on obesity and diabetes. Certainly, over-consumption of sugar is a major contributor to our nation’s health problems, but I tend to agree with Lammi when he wrote, “Sound science and the history of government nutrition policy dictate that narrowly focusing on one food, ingredient, or nutrient is exactly the wrong way to reduce obesity.”