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Battle Shaping Up Whether Honey, Maple Syrup 'Add Sugar'
Ohio Ag Connection - 06/14/2018

Every spring, landowners across northern parts of North America trek out into the woods to tap maple trees for their sap before spending days in their sugar shacks, cooking the clear juice down into one of consumers' favorites -- maple syrup.

But now landowners and others across New England are fuming over a U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirement that maple syrup producers list the naturally occurring sugars in their products as "added sugars."

Those two little words -- added sugars -- have set off a raging argument between the FDA and boutique producers of maple syrup and honey over the meaning of what would seem to be a simple phrase.

Wednesday, U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) spoke on the floor of the Senate to urge the FDA to exempt honey and maple products from a new regulation that would require them to include an "added sugar" label.

The battle dates back to 2014, when the FDA began requiring nutrition labels to disclose the amount of "added sugars" in a serving of packaged food as part of a broad campaign to promote healthier eating.

In its rule-making, the FDA leaned on definitions from the World Health Organization and U.S. Dietary Guidelines that "sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices" are so-called free, or added, sugars.

The rule triggered tremendous blowback from maple syrup and honey producers, and, for different reasons, from the cranberry industry. Earlier this year, the FDA proposed a compromise: a footnote on labels for additional information. Pure honey and maple syrup producers, the FDA suggested, could use the footnote to explain the sugars in their products are "naturally occurring," as opposed to processed or refined. (The footnote would not be available on commercial table syrups made from sweeteners such as corn syrup.)

That effort to placate has only invited a new round of ridicule from honey and maple syrup producers, who see the FDA effort as the epitome of Washington bureaucrats run amok.

"I cannot understand the logic behind using the word 'added' to products made from naturally occurring sugars that do not have sugar added to them. That seems akin to putting the words 'added water' on a bottle of water," Blake Harrison, orchard manager at Kent Ridge Orchards in Cornwall, Vt., wrote in comments submitted to the FDA. "It just seems terribly misleading to me, both as a consumer and as a producer of honey and syrup."

Comments on the FDA's footnote proposal are due June 15, but the agency has not said when it will make a final decision. The new labeling requirements are scheduled to go into effect in stages: by 2020 for food makers with annual sales of $10 million or more, and by 2021 for smaller companies.

The FDA declined to provide officials for interviews, pointing instead to information it released during the rule-making that includes making a distinction between foods that are rich in nutrients, and those full of empty calories.

A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers this past week sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottleib insisting he exempt pure maple syrup and honey from the new "added sugars" disclosure requirements.

"While we support FDA's effort to ensure the label remains scientifically valid and helpful to consumers, we are concerned about the misleading impression that an 'added sugars' disclosure on single ingredient maple and honey products would create," wrote the legislators. "An 'added sugars' declaration on single ingredient maple and honey products may signal to consumers that these pure products -- such as a bottle of maple syrup or jar of honey -- actually contain added sweeteners such as table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. This is patently false."

The members continued, "We appreciate FDA's recognition of this issue and willingness to consider alternative labeling options for these products. Although the FDA's March 2, 2018 Draft Guidance would allow manufacturers to add a symbol immediately after the added sugars daily value directing consumers to clarifying language elsewhere on the label, this approach seems unlikely to reduce consumer confusion. The simplest, most common sense solution to this issue would be to exempt single ingredient maple and honey products from the added sugars disclosure requirement because they do not, in fact, contain any added sugars."

The letter was sent by King and Chellie Pingree, Maine; Peter Welch, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, Vermont; Kevin Cramer, North Dakota; Joe Courtney, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, Connecticutt; Ted S. Yoho, Florida; Claudia Tenney, Chris Collins, and Elise Stefanik, New York; Mark Pocan and Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin; Greg Gianforte, Montana; Ann McLane Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, New Hampshire; Kristi Noem, South Dakota; and David Joyce, Ohio.

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