FDA: Sugar should be called sugar
Last year a judge threw out a class-action lawsuit brought against Whole Foods that claimed the grocer was misleading consumers by listing "evaporated cane juice" instead of "sugar" on the ingredient lists for its 365 brand. Similar lawsuits have been brought against other food companies, including Chobani.
The problem with the labeling language lies in process: Making sugar involves juicing sugarcane and boiling it until the liquid cooks off—evaporates—leaving behind a concentrated, sweet by-product we call...sugar. But the sameness of the ingredients that the two terms describe didn't convince U.S. District Judge Edward D. Davila.
"It simply cannot be that plaintiff thought ECJ [evaporated cane juice] referred to bamboo cane, sorghum cane, corn or cane berries as used on labels for chicken broth, ketchup, and instant oatmeal," he wrote. "Such an allegation suspends reality too thin."
The plaintiff, Robert Pratt, was described in the lawsuit as a "health conscious consumer who wished to avoid added sugars," and it does "suspend reality" a bit to believe that he didn't understand the difference. But the question of sugar and labeling is far larger than one Whole Foods shopper. Sugar is increasingly seen as a leading cause of obesity and diet-related diseases, such as diabetes. Following the Food and Drug Administration's announcement last week that it will require that "added sugar" amounts be included in the updated nutrition information design, the agency released new guidance on Wednesday saying that the sweetener made by evaporating cane juice should be called what it is on ingredient lists—sugar.
"The term 'evaporated cane juice' is false or misleading because it suggests that the sweetener is 'juice' or is made from 'juice' and does not reveal that its basic nature and characterizing properties are those of a sugar," reads the guidance, which is not binding. Despite not setting any enforceable precedent for requiring companies to call sugar sugar, it could still have the effect of pushing the food industry away from more misleading ingredient terms. There could be legal consequences too, as other consumer lawsuits over the use of "evaporated cane juice" on packaging were put on hold until the FDA weighed in on the terminology.
Until the lawsuits shake out and companies start to change ingredient terms to reflect the FDA's guidance, consumers can be certain of one thing: No matter what anyone or any package tries to tell you, evaporated cane juice is sugar.
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