As our country continues to face an obesity and diabetes crisis, food companies are under great pressure to reduce the excessive use of sugar and calories in their products. For industry, this generally means replacing natural sweeteners with artificial ones, rather than decreasing the use of sweeteners all together. Companies are starting to sneak artificial sweeteners into all types of products, including those intended for children, and they aren’t very eager to tell you that they are doing it.
Just last month, a controversial petition was submitted to the FDA by the Dairy Industry requesting that flavored milk be exempt from labeling standards which require companies to disclose the use of artificial sweeteners. Currently, products containing artificial sweeteners must be labeled with what the FDA calls, ‘nutrient content claims.’ These are phrases such as ‘reduced calorie’ or ‘no added sugar’ which are placed on the front of the package in addition to displaying which sweeteners are used in the ingredients list on the back of the package. Below is an example of the current standard vs. what the Dairy Industry wants:
This issue was particularly alarming to parents, because it was the Dairy Industry’s belief that these claims may deter children from wanting to drink the artificially sweetened milk that caused them to make the request. The FDA has just begun reviewing comments from industry and consumers about the issue, thus a decision is still in the works, but the concept and subsequent controversy has really got me thinking about the increased use of these sweeteners in general.
The following words and phrases are those commonly used on of the front of food packages to denote the use of artificial sweeteners in a product:
‘no added sugar’
Why don’t companies just label the products, “sweetened with artificial sweeteners”? Is that just too honest? Or is it because the food industry knows that many consumers want to avoid these sweeteners, so they would rather work with the FDA to create positive sounding (and arguably VERY misleading) claims that avoid using the word ‘artificial’?
To add to the confusion, some claims like “no added sugar” don’t always mean the same thing for every product. Sometimes it means the product contains artificial sweeteners instead of sugar; sometimes it means there are no added sweeteners whatsoever. It is not the same thing as “sugar-free”, however, as products with the “no added sugar” claim also usually contain naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit or dairy products. Confused yet? You are not alone.
Not only do many consumers not understand the meaning behind these claims on the front of the package, but for those wanting to abstain from artificial sweeteners, looking to the ingredients label on the back of the package can be just as confusing. Many people are familiar with the common brand names for artificial sweeteners such as Equal, Sweet N’ Low, and Splenda but these names usually won’t be found in the list of ingredients. Instead, companies list the generic names, like these:
Acesulfame K (or Acesulfame Potassium)
The Sugar Association conducted a poll which showed that when the generic term for an artificial sweetener is used, unsurprisingly, consumer recognition declines.
While the research surrounding the long-term use of artificial sweeteners is inconclusive, surveys have shown that many Americans still feel it is important to know what sweeteners are being used when they purchase foods and beverages. The current practice of using misleading claims (or no claims at all), and unfamiliar generic terminology is unfair to those consumers.
If you are curious about which foods and beverages these sweeteners are hiding in, I took a quick look through the grocery store to see where I could find them. This is certainly not an all inclusive list; artificial sweeteners are currently found in over 6,000 products. But, some of these might surprise you!