Consumers Seek Sweet Drinks, No Added Sugars

New regulations establish rules for communicating with shoppers. 

February 04, 2020

CHICAGO—Because beverage marketers want to avoid the image of promoting highly sweetened drinks, they often turn to descriptions such as “reduced sugar” or “slightly sweetened” on the product label to make their point. Whatever phrase they choose, they want to appeal to the four out of five shoppers who are limiting or avoiding sugars in foods.

According to a report in Food Business News, studies show some shoppers make beverage purchasing decisions based on the sugar—and now the “added sugar”—labeling. It’s easy for consumers to get that information since “added sugars” became a mandatory subset of the total sugars line in the Nutrition Facts Label on January 1 for manufacturers with annual sales of at least $10 million. Smaller companies have an additional year to comply.

“Although consumer confusion about food and health remains high, one area showing the strongest consensus is the desire to reduce the amount of sugar in an individual diet,” said Mel Mann, director of innovation for Wixon, a manufacturer of custom flavor systems and food technologies. “Reasons behind this may be weight management, as well as to avoid health complications such as diabetes, cavities and other negative issues associated with high-sugar consumption.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is specific regarding a manufacturer’s permissible sugar claims. The description of “sugar-free” may be made on products with less than 0.5 grams of sugars per reference amounts customarily consumed (R.A.C.C.) and per labeled serving.

“No added sugars” and “without added sugars” claims are allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient, such as concentrated fruit juice, is added during processing.

“Reduced-sugar” and “less-sugar” claims are possible when there is at least 25% fewer grams of sugar per RACC. When making such a claim, the label must also state the comparison, such as “50% less sugar than (the reference food).”

While the descriptor “low” is defined by the FDA as it relates to some nutrients, as well as calories, it has not been authorized for use with sugar; therefore, low-sugar claims violate the FDA labeling regulations. Descriptors such as “tad,” “a touch of” and “slightly” are not referenced in the regulations.

Early in January, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, formally requested that the FDA enforce such vernacular that implies a beverage is not a concentrated source of added sugars. The center charges that the labeling is misleading.

“Beverages considered discretionary or recreational will receive the most scrutiny with the new ‘added sugar’ callout on nutrition panels,” Mann said. “They also present the best opportunity to provide the consumer options to manage sugar consumption while retaining the familiarity consumers are looking for in their beverages.