Political Science or Sound Science – Is the White House Dictating Nutrition Labeling Reform?

The White House’s role with USDA’s regulations for school foods and the WIC feeding program has been widely reported. Lesser known is the White House involvement in FDA food labeling policy.

To commemorate the anniversary of the Let’s Move! campaign, the first lady hosted a week-long series of events in March, one of which included announcing new proposed FDA regulations requiring the “Nutrition Facts” label on food packages to list “Added Sugars.”

The Nutrition Facts label, required since 1994, has had an uneven impact on Americans’ dietary habits. It needs to be reformed. For example, FDA is proposing to require the “Calories” per serving line to appear in larger, more conspicuous type for consumers to easily see.

But the White House seems to be pushing FDA to require more, including the disclosure of “Added Sugars,” which may not be necessary or even beneficial. The FDA itself concedes:

  • “U.S. consensus reports have determined that inadequate evidence exists to support the direct contribution of added sugars to obesity or heart disease ... [1]
  • The 2010 Dietary Guidelines states that “added sugars do not contribute to weight gain more than [any other] calorie source;” [2]
  • It “is not aware of any existing consumer research that has examined this topic,” [3] i.e. no research has ever been conducted on how consumers would interpret an “Added Sugars” disclosure on the Nutrition Facts Panel …or how it might confuse consumers.
  • “There are currently no analytical methods that are able to distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and those sugars added to a food”[4] (thus necessitating a proposed massive recordkeeping requirement that companies keep track of the amount of sugars they use in food products).

This unprecedented mandate by FDA strays beyond the agency’s traditional legal authority and subjects food companies to additional costs that are ultimately passed on to consumers.

About a year ago, FDA requested permission from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to conduct a study to find out if an “Added Sugars” disclosure would be helpful or confusing to consumers. However, to coincide with the anniversary of the Let’s Move! campaign, FDA, on March 3, published its proposed rule including “Added Sugars” labeling despite the absence of any consumer survey research. OMB approval of FDA’s research study was granted in an untimely fashion three weeks after the proposed regulation was published (and then only after trade press reports had drawn attention to the matter).

The consumer research study is just now underway and the results are not known … much less published for public comment.

Politically, Let’s Move! and the White House accomplished their mission. The FDA announcement on “Added Sugars” labeling filled the national news for days even though the agency had not conducted its research project to determine if the disclosure would be helpful to consumers.

What will be the impact on the consumer? No one really knows. Under the proposed regulation, the “Added Sugars” disclosure would be listed in a triple-indent format under the existing line for “Sugars,” which itself is indented under the line for “Total Carbohydrates.”

Even lawyers wince at triple indents in legal documents; how will a busy consumer comprehend the information when glancing at a food label in the grocery store? Will this be another misguided attempt by the administration and only confuse consumers more? Will it provide any long-term benefits to Americans’ health?

Why not keep it simple and just require calories to be disclosed in a more conspicuous manner? While not a perfect solution, since all calories are not the same, it would still represent an improvement in the label.

For added sugars content, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines directs consumers to check ingredient lists where sugars, along with other ingredients, are already disclosed in order of predominance. Moreover, the amount of “Sugars” per serving is already required to be listed on the “Nutrition Facts” label under the disclosure for “Total Carbohydrates.”

Common sense says less is better…but in this case, it seems the White House and FDA are pursuing a political agenda against sugar.

Given the Let’s Move! agenda, it’s not surprising that FDA “put the cart before the horse” and proposed “Added Sugars” disclosures without completing long planned research that the White House (OMB) itself delayed.

But, basing regulatory proposals on political science, not sound science, is a recipe for policy failure. The President himself signed an Executive Order 13563 on January 18, 2011 on Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review which stated, “It must be based on the best available science.” Seems the White House and/or FDA are speaking out of both sides of their mouth.

The White House should direct FDA to live up to the Administration’s purported commitment to evidence-based science and regulatory policy, and withdraw the proposed “Added Sugars” labeling regulation.

Endnotes:

[1] 79 Federal Register 11904 (March 3, 2014).

[2] 79 Federal Register 11904 (March 3, 2014).

[3] 78 Federal Register 32394 (May 30, 2013).

[4] 79 Federal Register 11905 (March 3, 2014).

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