Campaigners would contend companies do not often make progressive moves on issues of public concern until pressure has been exerted on them to do so. In the food sector, there is a fair deal of historical evidence to support this, so moves like the one Mars Inc has made on the labelling of added sugar in the US are somewhat rare.

In its response to the February report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), Mars has endorsed the proposal to include the amount of added sugars in foods on the Nutrition Facts Panel, and has also backed the committee’s recommendation, which follows the advice of the World Health Organization, that free sugars should make up no more than 10% of daily energy intake.

In its submission, Mars said it supports the consideration of “new labelling approaches”, including added sugars labelling, aimed at providing consumers with information to guide decisions about their sugar intake.

However, the company added such approaches must “also ensure consumers understand the relationship between total and added sugars”. This speaks to one of the primary reasons food companies put forward for opposing labelling of added sugars, namely that it could further mislead those who mistakenly believe added sugars act differently from those sugars occurring naturally in foods such as fruits.

There was generous and magnanimous support of Mars’ move from campaigners, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and it is perhaps a good thing the pressure groups were not immediately searching for ulterior motives. Proactive moves of this type are so rare and the debates over diet and health issues so contentious that those pressuring food companies to change tend to look for corporate spin at every turn.

One fact campaigners might have made more of perhaps is confectionery manufacturers in one sense have less to fear about pointing consumers to the sugar content of their products. Consumers are unlikely to be surprised – or on the evidence of current consumer trends deterred – by the sugar content of confectionery.

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Clearer labelling, whether on the Nutrition Facts Panel or on front-of-pack, will do most to influence consumer behaviour where it tells them something they did not already know. With regard to added sugar, this most certainly relates to the many other processed foods, many of which are not sweet, that contain high levels of added sugar and are purchased by consumers who are often ignorant of their high sugar content.

Campaigners in particular want to see companies reduce the amount of sugar in these products and to make consumers more aware of their added sugar levels. However, sugar is an important and cost-effective ingredient in many of these foods and reformulating products to reduce their sugar content is a challenge for food companies. It is for this reason above any other that food companies oppose the labelling of added sugar as recommended by the DGAC.

Mars does produce non-confectionery food products through its Mars Food division, including Dolmio, Kan Tong and Royco sauces but many of its peers among the major food companies have far greater exposure to these kind of categories.

It is interesting to note also that regarding another bold recommendation by the DGAC Committee vehemently opposed by industry, namely that fiscal measures could be used “to encourage the production and consumption of healthy foods and to reduce unhealthy foods”, Mars’ position remains entirely in line with other companies.

After stating its support for the added sugars recommendations, Mars adds in its submission: “We believe it is important to note, however, that Mars is concerned that the DGAC proposed specific policy recommendations related to local and federal economic/tax policies, food assistance programmes, health care, and education without providing policy rationale and evidence to support and justify these recommendations.”

It continued: “While Mars would welcome and would be a constructive participant in any discussion and debate about these and other approaches to help consumers reduce intake of added sugars and other nutrients of concern, we believe such proposals should be carefully considered by government, industry, NGO, and other key stakeholders in policy forums that promote transparency, debate, and differing views – such as state and Federal legislatures. In the future, we encourage USDA and HHS to limit the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s review and recommendations to the scope of nutrition advice, recognising that the responsibility to consider and develop public policies that advance these nutrition goals rests with elected officials and federal regulators.”

Elsewhere, the maker of Uncle Ben’s rice also said in its submission that it “supports the DGAC’s recommended intake of whole grains and the recognition that enriched grains like white rice can provide a meaningful contribution to the diet”.

It is unlikely Mars’ position on added sugar labelling will be adopted by other food companies but it is nevertheless a significant moment in the current debate over the prominence attached to the risks of added sugar in the diet.

Over the past year couple of years, public health advocates and campaigners have increasingly turned their attention to the risks of sugar consumption, and notably the presence of “hidden sugar” in many processed foods. For example, campaigners in the UK are urging the country’s government to include a specific sugar reduction pledge in its Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD). Food companies contend the generalised calorie reduction pledge in the PHRD is sufficient but this position is becoming harder to justify as concerns specifically over added sugar mount.

Indeed, the DGAC report itself reflects how scientific thinking on which nutrients represent the most risk to consumers have changed. The DGAC’s decision to downgrade cholesterol as a nutrient of concern, dropping a recommendation that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 mg/day and saying cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for over-consumption, while upgrading concern over added sugars and other carbohydrates, has added weight to campaigners’ calls for more attention to be paid to sugar, both by public health agencies and companies.

Elements of Mars’ submission to the DGAC review may reflect its corporate interests but its unilateral move on an area of increasing concern is to be welcomed. Those seeking change will certainly use Mars’ position on the labelling of added sugars to dial up the pressure on other food companies to be more explicit about the sugar content in their products.