BENEO VP regulatory affairs Anke Sentko was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA as the FDA considers whether some ‘non-traditional’ sugars such as tagatose and isomaltulose should count as sugars on the Nutrition Facts panel in the wake of recent changes to the way the rare sugar allulose is labeled.
The FDA – which said in spring 2019 that allulose does not have to be listed as added or total sugar on food labels – went on to invite comment on whether other sugars that are not metabolized in the same way as traditional sugars should also be treated differently for the purposes of nutrition labeling.
In its October 2020 request for comment, the agency said factors that might be relevant include the pH of dental plaque after consumption, caloric value, and glycemic and insulinemic response.
Look at physiology, not just chemistry, when determining nutrition labeling
It makes sense that the FDA is considering physiological effects as well as simply looking at chemical structure when it considers whether to classify something as a sugar for nutrition labeling purposes, said Sentko at BENEO, which makes isomaltulose under the brand name Palatinose.
While isomaltulose is chemically a ‘sugar’ in that it’s a disaccharide manufactured by the enzymatic rearrangement of sucrose from beets, with 4 calories per gram like regular sugar, she said, it does not have the same impact on insulin and blood sugar (it has a lower glycemic index and is digested more slowly).
“Looking at physiology is a very important step in the right direction. We need to look at happens in the mouth, what happens in the small intestine and the large intestine when you eat an ingredient. How does it impact blood glucose levels? How quickly is it absorbed and what happens afterwards
“Is it metabolized as energy as carbohydrates are supposed to do, or is excreted unchanged? Carbohydrates are supposed to deliver calories, the energy the body needs, and the big advantage of isomaltulose is that it is absorbed, fully but slowly, so you get a low blood sugar response and sustained energy.
“It also promotes fat oxidation which leads to less fat storage, and the bacteria in the mouth, the streptococcus living there, they are not able to break it down, so it does not promote dental caries.”
‘In the past, people would talk about complex carbohydrates, but what is complexity?’
She added: “In the past, people would talk about complex carbohydrates, but what is complexity? To me, it means slowly entering the body, which is what isomaltulose does, so it’s kind of an ideal carbohydrate from a physiological point of view that just happens to be a disaccharide.”
‘There is a clear learning from the consumer side that blood sugar matters’
At a more practical level, meanwhile, excluding isomaltulose and other non-traditional sugars such as tagatose from the total and added sugars declaration would likely encourage more companies to use them, she said, noting that the FDA’s decision to exclude allulose from the declaration had prompted a surge of commercial interest.
“Sugar has a negative image from a public health point of view, in particular when it comes to soft drinks, so to be counted as sugar does not help product development.”
That said, BENEO is seeing strong interest in Palatinose in everything from sports nutrition products to clinical nutrition, she said, as more consumers understand the importance of carbohydrates that don’t spike blood sugar.
“There is a clear learning from the consumer side that blood sugar matters. And despite the fact that Palatinose needs to be labeled as sugar, they can still indicate on labels that this sugar is different from traditional sugar.”
An important conversation
While things are not looking promising in Europe when it comes to nutrition labeling for isomaltulose and other non-traditional sugars, other countries tend to watch the FDA, so if it decides to exclude certain sugars from sugar labeling, it could have broader consequences, she predicted.
“In Singapore, for example, they are very active in the war against diabetes, and they accept isomaltulose as one of the tools to apply, but they say due to international trade, they are hesitating to make label changes, so it would be a big signal for the rest of the world if FDA decided on an exemption.
“It’s a good thing the FDA is looking at this, because healthy nutrition in my view, is balanced nutrition, that means carbohydrates, protein, and fat. If you want to follow a [high-fat, ultra-low carb] keto diet to lose weight, that’s a personal choice, but long term, carbohydrates play an important role in the diet.”