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The Food and Drug Administration is backing down on the much-ridiculed requirement that labels on maple syrup and honey list them as having “added sugar”.

The issue produced a lot of predictable “how stupid can they be????” comments and bureaucrat-bashing, but I think it reflects a deep issue: As consumers we all want good information to help us make decisions, but that is harder than it seems – especially when talking about something as complicated and uncertain as diet and health.

Here’s the underlying problem: Food companies have found that people – you, me, everybody – likes food when they add a little sugar to it, even food that we don’t think of as being sweet. These days sugar from various sources is shoved into almost everything on the grocery shelf, from ketchup to dried fruit to “energy drinks,” which are just soda pop with macho labeling. As a result we are eating a lot more sugar than we realize, contributing to obesity and other health problems.

The solution is to let us know when foods have more sugar than we might expect and to do it through labeling, right? That seems easy – and in many cases, it is; you tell us how much sugar is “added” to ketchup, say. Problem solved.

But then come the edge cases. Consider orange juice and cranberry juice.

Orange juice is almost always “made from concentrate,” which means much of the water and pulp is removed from lots of squeezed oranges and the result is combined, producing a liquid that is much sweeter than any actual orange. Sugar hasn’t been “added” but non-sugar has been removed, which is functionally the same thing. How do you label that to let people know that they’re consuming more sugar than they may realize?

As for cranberry juice, it is naturally bitter and so some sugar is, indeed, added – yet the total sugar drunk per given volume of cranberry juice is much less than in orange juice. Putting an “added sugar”  label on cranberry juice but not orange juice would mislead consumers about sugar consumption rather than inform them; it would follow the letter but not the spirit of the law, so to speak.

As for honey and maple syrup, both have natural amounts of sugar so high that they trigger health warnings, which was covered by admittedly clumsy label of “added sugar”. You’d think people would know without being told that both are really, really sugary but consumers can be pretty dumb.

Plus, you can  argue that for maple syrup, at least, the label isn’t misleading. It  takes a ton of energy to boil off 96-98% of the water in maple sap to produce the final sugar-laden deliciousness of syrup – as with orange juice, non-sugar has been removed, which is functionally the same as adding sugar. Certainly the result is much, much sweeter than any “natural” product.

So yes, it’s stupid to put an “added sugar” label on honey – but that doesn’t mean that there’s an easy way to let you and me and everybody else know, quickly and easily, about the way our foods have been altered or not altered and what’s best for us.

Life- it’s so darn complicated.

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