Controversy Over FDA Denying Labeling Change for Sweetener Explained

The term rare sugar is new to most of us. It means types of sugar that occur naturally in small amounts but can be produced in large quantities using enzymes. While you might not have heard that term, anyone who does low-carb baking has most likely used the rare sugar allulose as a sweetener in a recipe. Some of them are much lower in carbs and calories than fructose or sucrose.

In 2019 the FDA changed how allulose could be listed on labels. It no longer had to be listed as an added sugar but did have to be included in the total number of carbs. Allulose does not impact insulin response and isn’t absorbed during digestion. Now, three years later, the FDA has refused the request to have the rare sugar tagatose listed the same way.

The manufacturer of tagatose, Bonumose, called the decision “contradictory and illogical.” The FDA said they based their decision on calories. Sucrose has four calories per gram. Tagatose has 1.5 calories per gram. Allulose has just 0.4 calories per gram. The calorie difference was what played the biggest role in the final ruling.

The company is angry because, they argue, tagatose not only doesn’t upset blood sugar. Under European law it can even market the sweetener as helping to lower blood sugar. In a stage three clinical trial, tagatose managed hyperglycemia similarly to some drugs on the market. Tagatose acts as a prebiotic, feeding the microbiome and helping the gut stay healthy. It works like a soluble fiber. It also breaks up dental plaque and can be used in toothpaste and mouthwash.

Tagatose is an attractive sweetener to food companies. It’s 92 percent as sweet as sugar, and it has practically the same properties as regular sugar. For instance, it freezes at the same temperature, making frozen things keep the same texture they would have typically. Some think it could be the closest thing to a one-to-one replacement for sugar in large-scale food production. Hershey has invested in Bonumose and said that the petition to the FDA was based on sound science.

Bonumose has suggested that allulose was given the new label rules, and tagatose wasn’t because of bias, not science. Allulose is a fructose product made by high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) companies. The company claims that the HFCS companies are politically contacted and that “If the FDA actually cared about human health, it would encourage, not discourage, the broad adoption of tagatose.”

It will be interesting to see what happens next. In the meantime, as always, we recommend always reading labels, including the ingredient list. They can be challenging to understand, especially as chemical names can be complicated. But, it’s really the only way to know what you’re eating when you eat prepared foods.

Banner image: Jason via Unsplash

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