LA QUINTA, CALIF. — While there has been “a lot of government activity” concerning sugar reduction over the past decade, efforts appear to have intensified in the past few months, including targeting sugar as a means to achieve reduced consumption of processed foods, according to speakers at the International Sweetener Colloquium on Feb. 28.

Beth Johnson, RD, founder and principal, Food Directions LLC, said current efforts to address sugar consumption include work on the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, listing of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts panel, an updated definition of “healthy” by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, added sugar limits for school meals, a “healthy” icon labeling system, soda taxes and others.

Courtney Gaine, PhD, RD, president and chief executive officer of The Sugar Association, said the FDA also was working on the definition of what constituted a “low sugar” claim on product labels.

Attempts to limit sugar consumption are shifting away from voluntary, private sector commitments to government or mandated requirements, Ms. Johnson said. The FDA has focused on labeling because it’s “the easiest to regulate,” she said, even if consumers don’t understand labels.

Sugar panelFrom left to right: Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of The Sugar Association; Kris Sollid, senior director, nutrition communications, international food information council; Beth Johnson, founder and principal, Food Direcitons LLC; and Andy Dratt, EVP and chief commercial office, Imbibe. Photo: Sosland Publishing Co.“It’s just confusing, very confusing,” Ms. Johnson said.

Andy Dratt, executive vice president and chief commercial officer of Imbibe, agreed that there was “so much confusion from the policy perspective and from the consumer perspective” about sugar and labeling.

Ms. Johnson said the new definition for healthy has a “very, very low sugar threshold” and that “not many products can be called healthy.”

“Less than 5% of packaged foods will qualify to have the healthy icon,” Ms. Johnson said. “The intent is to discourage consumption of processed foods.”

Globally, Ms. Johnson said the World Health Organization “is making a lot of headway against sugar,” also as a “means to an end against processed foods.” She noted several countries have regulations concerning advertising and in some cases sales of certain foods high in sugar content.

Efforts at sugar reduction have been ongoing for decades, but the focus hasn’t taken hold as hoped, according to Mr. Dratt.

“Sugar does a lot more than sweeten in products,” he said. “There are a lot of uses for sugar that make it difficult to replace.” At the same time, there is “nothing that exactly mimics sugar on a sweetener perspective.”

Cost also is a factor, Mr. Dratt said. Food and beverage manufacturers can reduce sugar by 20% with no cost difference, but products with sugar reductions of more than 20% cost more to make.

Consumers do not define healthy the same way that the FDA defines it, said Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council (IFIC). To consumers, “low in sugar” is a signal a product may be healthy, he said.

About 60% of consumers say they want to limit sugar, about 14% are avoiding it and about 25% aren’t trying to limit or avoid sugar consumption, Mr. Sollid said, based on survey data in the IFIC’s 2022 Food and Health Survey. Of those seeking to avoid sugar, 41% are doing it to avoid gaining weight and 38% to improve their diet in general, while 25% of consumers like sugar sweetened foods and beverages.

“There’s a lot of difference between what people say and what they do,” Mr. Dratt said about consumer responses to diet-based survey questions and their actions.

Mr. Sollid noted that reduction trends have been happening for years, but now it’s stated on the label. Consumers are more willing to buy a product that is lower in sugar, and it’s also great if it’s cheaper, he said.

“People look at calories, sodium, then total sugars, then added sugars,” Mr. Sollid said. “Way down on the list is fiber. People look at ‘negative’ versus ‘positive’” information on labels.

Ms. Johnson added that healthy to consumers often meant “low fat, low sugar, low salt,” without regard to calories.

Ms. Gaine said that in the past, efforts to reduce sugar were under the guise of making information available to consumers. Now, she said, it’s “heavy handed pressure to reformulate.” She said there has not been a healthy discussion on calories.

Ms. Gaine said data showed obesity rates have continued to rise even as per capita caloric sweetener consumption has declined since the late 1990s. She said added sugars made up 12.9% of total daily calories in 2017-18 compared with 14% in 2009-10 and 18.1% in 1999-2000, “not far from 10%” as the recommended limit.

“Every story needs a good villain,” Ms. Gaine said, implying that sugar has been made the villain in obesity.

Meanwhile, consumers “want a quick fix, not balance, variety and moderation” in their diets, she said.