WASHINGTON—The federal government should help Americans avoid weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems by setting a new added sugars standard for school foods and by requiring restaurants to disclose added sugars, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. On Monday the nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group and others petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to implement those steps now that data on added sugars is required on Nutrition Facts labels.
Federal law requires that the school lunch and breakfast programs, as well as other foods sold in schools, comport with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the once-every-five-years advice published jointly by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. The 2020-2025 edition of the Guidelines recommends Americans limit their added sugars intake to less than 10 percent of calories. CSPI, the American Heart Association, and the American Public Health Association today filed a citizen petition with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service asking the agency to set a standard for added sugars that is consistent with that advice. The groups say such a standard would be especially helpful at breakfast, where flavored milks, sugary cereals, syrups, and other foods are widely served.
USDA last set standards for the school meal program and for so-called “competitive foods”—the foods sold a la carte alongside the reimbursable meals, in vending machines, or elsewhere on school grounds—in 2012 and 2013, respectively, before food and drink manufacturers were required to disclose added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels.
“For many children from food-insecure families, the breakfast and lunch served in school may be their only nutritious meals of the day,” said CSPI president Dr. Peter G. Lurie. “While the program has been a historic success story, it needs to keep up to date with the latest science. Setting a standard for added sugars that is consistent with the Dietary Guidelines will be a relatively easy lift for both the agency and the food and beverage companies that supply products to the program.”
A recent CSPI analysis of nearly 2,000 products produced by 28 food and beverage companies for use in the school meals program found that the industry is largely meeting existing standards and would have little difficulty meeting the proposed new standard.
The petitioners are also asking the agency to disallow aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-K, and sucralose from school foods, citing the possibility that manufacturers might rely on them to meet a new added sugars standard, as well as concerns over those sweeteners’ safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “the long-term safety of [non-nutritive sweeteners] in childhood has not been assessed in humans.” CSPI’s analysis found that the vast majority of foods marketed to school food service providers do not contain artificial sweeteners, though some do.
Separately on Monday, CSPI, Consumer Reports, and Dr. Jason Block, a physician and Harvard Medical School researcher who studies the impact of government policy on dietary behavior, filed a citizen petition with the Food and Drug Administration urging the agency to require chain restaurants to disclose added sugars to consumers upon request. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), chain restaurants are already required to disclose calories on menus and menu boards, and to disclose fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, total sugars, dietary fiber, and protein upon request.
When the FDA’s menu labeling regulations were finalized in 2014, the agency had yet to determine a daily reference value for added sugars or to require their disclosure on Nutrition Facts labels. The agency did so in 2016. The ACA explicitly gives the authority to the agency to require additional nutrient disclosures, and the FDA generally harmonizes the mandatory disclosures at chain restaurants with what is required on Nutrition Facts labels and the DGA.
Restaurant meals, particularly those that include a full-calorie soda or other sugary drink, can be quite high in added sugars. The average fast-food combo meal contains 68 grams of total sugar, most in the form of added sugars from the drink. CSPI research published last year found that most soda fountain drinks served by restaurant chains contain more than a day’s worth of added sugars.
As was the case with its school foods ask of USDA, CSPI says it should be non-controversial for the FDA to require added sugars disclosures at chain restaurants, and easy for the industry to comply.
“Restaurant sales are climbing to new highs as Americans return to restaurants, yet restaurants don't have to reveal how much added sugars they are packing into their meals,” said Lurie. “We need consistent and clear nutrition information whether we’re shopping at a grocery store, bringing home takeout, or dining in at a chain restaurant.”
CSPI was instrumental in securing passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in 1990, which required mandatory Nutrition Facts on packaged foods for the first time, and for starting the movement to put calories on chain restaurant menus and menu boards, culminating with the inclusion of menu labeling provisions in the ACA.
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