Editorial: Proposed Maple Syrup Nutrition Label Adds Confusion

  • Vermont sugar maker John Narowski produces maple syrup on his farm in Newbury, Vt., where he also supplies syrup containers that bear the Vermont Maple Sugar Maker's Association (VMSMA) label. The VMSMA announced that it is abandoning the traditional tin container and will only allow its logo to be branded on plastic and glass containers in the future. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

We rise today in defense of maple syrup. Not the artificially flavored, artificially colored corn-syrup-and-chemical cocktail sold in plastic bottles shaped like maids or log cabins, but the real McCoy: extracted drop by drop from sugar maples, boiled for hours in a sugarhouse, preferably on a nearby farm, and sold as “pure maple syrup” because that’s exactly what it is.

Real maple syrup needs defenders now because it may soon be the victim of collateral damage in the Food and Drug Administration’s important — life or death, in fact — war on sugar.

At issue are proposed new nutrition labels, scheduled to appear in 2020 or 2021, that would tell consumers the pure maple syrup they are considering buying contains “added sugars.” There’s no “added” sugar in pure maple syrup, of course, nor is there any in pure honey, another single-ingredient product slated to get the new nutrition label.

“When you consume this product, you are adding sugar to your diet — that’s how it was explained to me,” David Kent, a maple producer from Jaffrey, N.H., and a board member of the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association, told the Concord Monitor.

The FDA has offered a compromise, of sorts: The label would still show “added sugar,” but it would add an explanatory footnote saying all the sugars are “naturally occurring.”

But producers fear the new labels — even with the footnote — would confuse consumers and threaten an industry that supports thousands of jobs and contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the economies of Vermont and New Hampshire, both in direct sales and related businesses. Vermont’s maple industry, the nation’s largest, contributed some $300 million to the state’s economy, according to the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont. New Hampshire’s maple syrup sales are much smaller, about $10 million according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the industry’s impact on travel and tourism in the state is huge.

The FDA’s reasoning goes like this: The link between sugar in the diet and chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes is clear — and Americans eat way, way too much sugar. According to the Pew Research Center, we gobble up something like 80 pounds of “caloric sweeteners” a year. (The total is about evenly split between refined sugar from the sugar bowl and corn-based sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup, which is found in many processed foods.)

The FDA’s nutrition guidelines recommend we get no more than 10 percent of our total daily calories from added sugar — and for good reason: A 15-year study on added sugar and heart disease, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that participants who took in 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10 percent added sugar.

The problem with pure maple syrup and honey? They are so high in natural sugar that the FDA’s “added sugar” designation is triggered — not because sugar was added, but because of the nutrition guidelines.

Lots of foods not normally considered “sweets” contain added sugar — ketchup, barbecue sauce, soups and salad dressing, to name just a few. They’re a key source of “added sugar” in the American diet, along with the usual suspects, soda and sugary cereals (both relentlessly and unconscionably marketed to children, by the way). Letting consumers know that there’s sugar where it might not be expected is exactly what the Nutrition Facts label should do.

But no one plunks down 50 bucks for a gallon of Grade B maple syrup (oops, our mistake, we mean Grade A; Very Dark) without understanding that this is sugar, it’s going to be added to food, and it’s going to be delicious. Far from being hidden in the list of ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, real maple syrup gets — and deserves — pride of place: right on top, and running down the sides, of whatever it’s served over.

Vermont’s congressional delegation has weighed in on the proposed nutrition labels, as have representatives from the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Association and the New Hampshire Maple Producers Association, all petitioning FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to exempt pure maple syrup and honey from the new label requirements. You can weigh in, too, at https://www.regulations.gov (search for docket number FDA-2018-D-0075).

But don’t be as slow as molasses. The deadline for comments is Friday.