Maine maple syrup, honey producers not so sweet on label change

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MaryAnne Kinney, whose family owns Kinney’s Sugarhouse in Knox, is planning a one-woman march on Washington, D.C., in June to protest a proposed federal regulation that would require maple syrup labels to indicate the product contains “added sugar.”

Maple syrup is naturally high in sugar — so high that it triggers the new requirement, which was designed to help consumers follow updated federal nutrition guidelines and alert them to excess sugar in their diets that could contribute to health problems, such as obesity and diabetes.

The “added sugar” designation would be listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

But maple syrup producers like Kinney say the new labels are confusing and could have a “devastating” effect on their businesses.

“It’s basically lying to consumers and lying to the people of the United States, in my opinion,” Kinney said.

The change also would apply to honey, and Maine honey producers are not happy with it, either.

Richard McLaughlin, president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association, called the labeling requirement “a nuisance.” He said honey is, on average, 17 percent water and the rest is mostly sugar.

“Honey is a pure product, and it is not altered by the beekeeper,” he said. “In our case, the sugar that’s naturally in honey is how the bees produce it. There is no added sugar.”

The FDA has tried to address industry concerns by tweaking the label, with a symbol appearing after the added sugars’ daily value that directs consumers to a footnote reading, “All of these sugars are naturally occurring in honey.” The same would apply to maple syrup.

“That didn’t satisfy any of us either because we all know about footnotes, right? Seldom are they read,” said Lyle Merrifield, a maple syrup producer from Gorham who is president of the Maine Maple Producers Association.

Merrifield said he first heard about the issue about three years ago, but many maple producers have viewed it as something that might be coming in the future, and they are only now waking up to the fact that the change is on their doorsteps. It’s a similar situation with beekeepers, McLaughlin said.

“I think it’s probably fallen off the radar, to a large degree, from peoples’ minds,” he said.

Kinney is not only aware of the issue, she is livid about it. Her business, which has 10,000 taps, produces thousands of gallons of maple syrup each year and produces more than half of her family’s annual income.

Maple syrup producers concentrate the sugar in maple sap, Kinney said, but never add it to their products. Sure, eating maple syrup adds sugar to a person’s diet, she said, “but you can do that eating a banana, too.” (Her own label already indicates that four tablespoons of her syrup contain 53 grams of sugar. The updated federal guidelines say people should consume no more than 50 grams of added sugars daily, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.)

Kinney argues that maple syrup is actually a healthier source of sugar because it contains a lot of antioxidants and substances, such as abscisic acid, which is thought to stimulate insulin release by the pancreas. And consumers who like to cook or bake with granulated maple sugar can cut their sugar use in half because it is so concentrated.

“You can actually reduce sugar if you use maple,” she said. “And it’s a richer flavor.”

Kathy Hopkins, the Skowhegan-based maple syrup expert with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that for the producers of single-ingredient sweeteners, such as maple syrup and honey, “the risk is that consumers are going to possibly misunderstand and think that they’ve been tricked all this time, that they’re not buying a pure product for which they’ve paid an extra price.”

McLaughlin, with the beekeepers association, worries that the new labeling requirement works against honey producers’ efforts to educate consumers about adulterated honey on the market that is cut with corn syrup to increase profits.

“We’ve spent so many years fighting the idea of pure honey versus adulterated honey,” he said, “and now we have to add a label that says added sugar.”

Kinney, also a Republican state legislator, has been in contact with members of Maine’s Congressional delegation and plans to travel to Washington the week of June 11 to try to meet with them, as well as with FDA officials.

She said being in the Legislature always carries more weight when someone cares enough to testify about a topic in person.

“This is so important to me and my family,” Kinney said. “I feel like I need to go to D.C. and take care of it.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s Second Congressional District, said the labeling requirement “just seems illogical to me.”

“This one, I just don’t even understand the rationale,” she said.

Pingree said she inserted language into the House Appropriations Bill that would stop the labeling requirement, but that it still has to go to the Senate. She has also met with FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb twice to discuss the issue.

“He understands my point of view, and they are hearing some concerns about this,” Pingree said. “But in terms of what their final decision will be, I don’t know yet, I think they are waiting to collect all their comments.”

Because of the backlash, the FDA has extended the deadline for public comments to June 15.

Until then, there is agreement that good intentions were behind the new added sugar nutrition guidelines, but the implementation has been less than sweet.

“We all know we shouldn’t be eating candy bars and chips,” Hopkins said. “It doesn’t hurt to have a reminder that maybe you want to think twice about eating the whole candy bar.

“I can appreciate that the FDA is trying to protect us from ourselves, but I just think the language is confusing.”

Maine Maple Syrup on the shelf Wednesday at Harris Farm in Dayton. Some Maine maple producers are upset by an impending FDA regulation requiring the Nutrition Facts labels on syrup (and honey) state that syrup has “added sugar.” (Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

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