Sweeteners face international, domestic challenges
March 10, 2017
DANA POINT, Calif. — U.S. officials need to pay more attention to opposition to sweeteners in international organizations, a representative of the Grocery Manufacturers Association told the International Sweetener Colloquium in Dana Point, Calif., last week.
Melissa San Miguel, senior director of global strategies, noted that in the United Nations organizations, the Pan American Health Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, sweeteners are being compared to smoking, alcohol, armed violence, war and terrorism – and obesity is being compared with them in cost terms.
"This is all tied up in the Right to Food," she said.
San Miguel, who has a State Department background, said that when she began focusing on this issue she found that the Health and Human Services Department is in charge of those agencies, at least on sweetener issues, and that "there is not a strong interagency process."
Those international organizations often have forums from which private industry is excluded, she noted.
San Miguel said she has "made headway with the U.S. government in keeping track of international policymaking," but "this is not easy. There is very little time to respond."
San Miguel said she is often told that because the international regulations on sweeteners are voluntary, they don't matter while national and local governments are making policy based on the positions of these international agencies.
"What's global is local," she said. "It is of paramount importance to get at the source of those problems."
There are rumors that the Trump administration wants to cut the State Department budget by 37 percent, and its "America First" statements also mean the administration is unlikely to be enthusiastic about more involvement with international agencies.
"We can't build up a rules-based system on the one hand and tear it down with the other," San Miguel said. The U.S. should make sure that "legitimate health issues" are being addressed at the World Health Organization, she said.
Sugar Association CEO Courtney Gaine said that the international policymaking has had an effect on the thinking at the federal and local levels in the U.S., even though the rationale for the reports in various international agencies and countries is different.
The recommendations to limit or reduce sweetener consumption in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have more impact now than in the past because they were used in the new nutrition facts label that includes a provision for added sugars including sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other caloric sweeteners such as syrups.
The nutrition facts label including a recommendation on how much added sugar to eat "gives a metric by which to judge foods," Gaine said.
Scientists hoped that the mandatory declaration of added sugars would lead companies to reformulate their products – and that is happening, she said, just as it did when trans fat labeling was done.
The public health community supports the labeling, she noted.
Meanwhile, she said, localities are adding sugar taxes and warning labels, and schools are using "healthy food" toolkits that are not based on science.
The food industry has acknowledged that "there is a really vocal part of the population that wants to know about food," and in many cases is now listing characteristics such as sugar-free, low-carb, gluten-free and fat-free.
Gaine noted that, even though the U.S. has gone through fads and dietary advice, Americans are eating more calories per day compared to 1970.
"We need to reduce all calories, but sugar is not the single driver," Gaine said. "In nutrition science, there is very little that is ever settled."
Randy Green of Watson Green LLC, who moderated the panel, noted that the new nutrition facts label is final, which means that changing it would be difficult.
"There is a concept called enforcement discretion," Green noted. Under Trump, "you might see more instances of enforcement discretion" than regulations pulled back, he concluded.