After prodding by Splenda maker, FDA proposes first exemption to “added sugar” label requirement

Less than seven months from now, food producers will be required to include “added sugar” counts on packaged food as part of a 2016 rehaul of nutrition facts labels. That’s a big deal for eaters, who will presumably be able to make better-informed choices, and also for manufacturers, who will have to disclose exactly how much sweetener they add to food.

One out of every three Americans have higher blood sugar levels than normal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The “added sugar” labeling requirement was implemented as a means to help eaters consume fewer calories from sugar. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an “added sugar” includes any sugars, syrups, and fruit juices that are added to processed foods.

However, in the eyes of FDA, some sugars are healthier than others. In mid-April, the agency drafted a proposal to allow producers to use a little-known sweetener called “allulose” without counting it as an “added sugar.” Allulose is a naturally occurring sugar that can be derived from dried figs, raisins, and wheat, or manufactured artificially, FDA said in its draft guidance. It also contains significantly fewer calories per gram compared to table sugar.

Allulose has received very little attention until recently.
The development of this rule originated in 2015, when British food manufacturer Tate & Lyle—the company behind Splenda and other food additives—submitted a citizen petition to FDA, asking that the agency exempt allulose from the “added sugar” labeling requirement. According to Tate & Lyle’s own research, the ingredient tastes sweet on the tongue, but it doesn’t get metabolized by the digestive system and is flushed out in urine. For that reason, the company said, counting allulose as an “added sugar” would “lead to confusion, especially those with diabetes and consumers who may be otherwise monitoring their blood [glucose] levels.”

Allulose has received very little attention until recently. Few media outlets outside of industry publications have covered FDA’s proposed exemption. A handful of dieting sites have fawned over the ingredient. But for the most part, I can’t find a lot of reporting on it.

Looking closer at Tate & Lyle’s citizen petition, I found that most of its studies were conducted on a fairly low number of participants. The company worked with a pool of just eight men in a non-randomized experiment to test the extent to which allulose was metabolized in the human body. Seven of the participants peed out over 80 percent of the allulose they ingested within a week. Tate & Lyle counted the one who did not as an outlier.

The company also conducted three experiments to observe allulose’s impact on blood sugar levels. In each, average blood sugar levels did in fact remain stable after consuming allulose. In comparison, levels rose and fell after consuming glucose, a popular sugar found in honey, corn syrup, and fruit. The experiments were conducted on small groups of no more than 12 adults each.

Behind the scenes, a handful of big food companies are gearing up to introduce allulose into the American food system.
The biggest experiment run by Tate & Lyle was an online consumer perception survey of 4,000 Americans. It found that 30 to 40 percent of respondents believed that allulose-flavored beverages had high calorie counts and that they raised blood sugar levels, neither of which is actually the case. For the company, the solution to this confusion was to exempt allulose from “added sugar” labels altogether. FDA seems to agree with this solution. (I asked an FDA spokesperson if the agency’s decision was informed solely by Tate & Lyle’s own studies, and will update this story when they respond.)

For its part, FDA said it considered not only the evidence in Tate & Lyle’s petition, but another submitted by a Food Lawyers—law firm representing food businesses—and other studies it deemed relevant. A list of those can be found here.

What’s Tate & Lyle’s skin in the game? In 2017, the company released an allulose-based sweetener product called Dolcia Prima. In an interview with Food Navigator, Tate & Lyle executive Abigail Storms said that the product was derived from corn-based sugar and then chemically converted into allulose.

Perhaps part of the reason that Americans know so little about allulose is that it’s not a very popular additive yet. But that may soon change. Behind the scenes, a handful of big food companies are gearing up to introduce allulose into the American food system. Ingredion, a major U.S.-based ingredient producer, partnered with Japanese starch manufacturer Matsutani Chemical Industry Co. to introduce an allulose product called Astraea to American eaters at some point in 2019. A Georgia-based food company called KNOW Foods already sells low-carb waffles, chocolate chips, and syrups made with allulose. You can even get cans of the ingredient on Amazon.

Though the allulose exemption is the first carve-out of the “added sugar” labeling requirement, it’s not likely to be the last. FDA is also considering a revision to the way products like maple syrup are required to declare “added sugar” content when they are, in fact, all sugar in and of themselves. NFE columnist Pat Clinton has outlined the regulatory quandary of doing so here.

Anyways, back to allulose. You have until June 17, 2019, to add your thoughts on the draft proposal and you can do so here.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.