Executive Update

Sugars in the Diet: Scientific and Regulatory Perspectives

This session explored declaring added sugars in nutrition labeling and whether limiting dietary sugars is a key to improving the diet. The panel consisted of Robert Earl, RD, Nutrition and Health Policy Director, Global Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, The Coca Cola Company; Joanne L. Slavin, Ph.D., R.D., Professor, Department of Food Scienceand Nutrition, University of Minnesota; David M. Klurfeld, Ph.D., National Program Leader, Human Nutrition, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest; and Sarah Roller, J.D., R.D., M.P.H., Partner, Kelley Drye & Warren, LLP.

To put matters of added sugars in perspective, Joanne Slavin of the University of Minnesota first reminded Science Forum attendees that dietary guidelines have always been controversial, and over time have become increasingly more involved and in-depth, from concise eight-page pamphlets to books with hundreds of pages. While they are controversial, they are important because they affect policy, even if they do not directly affect consumers. Every five years, dietary guidelines are reformulated, and this will happen again in 2015, which Slavin sees as a real opportunity for public input.

Slavin argued that there is no evidence that less intake of sugary beverages results in lower body weight, and that added sugars are not directly linked to negative health outcomes. Since they cannot be analytically determined, she believes that labeling added sugars on products will just further confuse consumers.

Additionally, Slavin believes there are excessive hopes and fears in many current attitudes toward food and nutrition, and insists that “sound nutrition is not a panacea”. We eat foods, not nutrients, she explained, and cultural norms and traditions must be considered when determining dietary guidelines, as well as factors that matter to consumers such as cost, availability, convenience and taste.

Next, David Klurfeld of the USDA discussed that the “all or none” approach is dominating the sugar argument in the scientific arena. The adverse effects of sugar intake could occur at some threshold level, but we do not know what it is.

“I do firmly believe that some Americans are getting far too many added sugars, but I don’t know where the cut should be,” Klurfeld said. “We don’t have evidence to draw the line for this. It could be 10 percent [of total daily calories], it could be 25 percent, it could be somewhere in between.”

Looking at soft drink consumption, 50 percent of Americans are not drinking sugar-sweetened beverages on any given day, so half of our population isn’t part of this equation to begin with, Klurfeld told attendees. He said one of the strongest arguments against addictive properties of sugar is the fact that kids love it; it’s an evolutionary protected factor. Kids like sweet foods, and as they mature into adults, they like less sweet foods, which argues fundamentally against sugar addiction. Klurfeld’s take-home message is that sugar is not poison, but some Americans have to agree they are eating too much sugar and that it’s not healthy; however, he’s not convinced there is a public health message for the total population.