A sign welcomes guests to Nutkin Knoll Farm and Sugarworks in Newburgh for Maine Maple Sunday in 2015. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Maine’s maple and honey producers are hoping the federal government backs off proposed new labeling requirements that they fear could undo decades of industry marketing of the natural sweeteners.

Educating or confusing consumers?

As part of a campaign aimed at educating consumers about excess sugar in their diets, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing that labels on pure maple sugar and pure honey contain the language “added sugar,” despite acknowledging no added sugar is present in either product beyond what naturally occurs. Maple and honey are sweet because of their naturally occurring fructose and glucose sugars.

“Pure honey [and] pure maple syrup contribute to the daily value of added sugars whether added by consumers to foods [like] maple syrup poured over pancakes or consumed in isolation [like] a spoonful of honey,” FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman said in an email Thursday. “The new nutrition facts label incorporates the latest evidence-based information on nutrients, such as added sugars, to provide consumers with more information regarding their food choices.”

In the case of pure maple syrups and honey, “added sugar” means how much sweetener — albeit naturally occurring — a single serving contains above the FDA recommended daily sugar allowance. Any food that has more than that allowance would have to contain the language “added sugar,” which really means “excess sugar over the recommended amount,” according to Kathy Hopkins, educator with University of Maine Cooperative Extension and advisor to the Maine Maple Producers Association.

“The gist of it is the FDA has said, ‘We have not updated nutrition labels for a while, and we need to do that,’” Hopkins said. “They were looking at Americans having many health issues — obesity being one of them — so [they] decided to do more education with food nutrition labels.

Splitting hairs?

That kind of semantic hairsplitting would be funny, if not for the real impact it could have on Maine’s $20 million annual maple syrup industry, U.S. Sen. Angus King said.

Maine is the third largest producer of pure maple syrup in the country, with 539,000 gallons coming out of the state’s sugar bushes this year.

“This is a case where what we are talking about is a well-meaning attempt on the part of the FDA to inform consumers,” King said Wednesday, speaking on the Senate floor. “What they are really doing is misinforming the consumers.”

The recommendations were proposed three years ago, but because there had been no move to implement them until recent months, they had fallen off the radar of most of Maine’s maple syrup and honey producers.

“For foods like maple or honey, everyone knows they are sugar,” Hopkins said. “The problem with these single-ingredient sweeteners is for years we have been marketing them as an all pure and natural product made from the sap from trees or by the bees, and when you put ‘added sugar’ on the label it sounds like the product has been adulterated, and that is confusing for the consumer.”

Asking for an exemption

Nationwide, syrup and honey producers are asking for an exemption from the requirements, Hopkins said. But so far the only compromise the FDA has offered is allowing them to place a small “t” next to the “added sugar,” indicating a footnote in very small print on the label explaining the product is all natural sugar with nothing more added.

“The symbol would lead the reader to truthful and non-misleading statements outside the nutrition facts label to provide additional information regarding the added sugars,” Eisenman said.

The compromise, according to Eisenman, is offered as a solution to address concerns from the honey and maple syrup industries about their products being adulterated with corn syrup or other added sweeteners.

For northern Maine maple producers Steve and Holly Hardwick, the new labeling rules make little sense.

“What we produce is a pure product,” Steve Hardwick said this week. “The sugar in our syrup is what occurs naturally in the sap from the maple trees. Having a label that says ‘added sugar’ is misleading.”

The Hardwicks produce and sell maple syrup, taffy, sugar and hard candy. All but the hard candy are single ingredient, 100 percent maple sugar.

The candy, Holly Hardwick explained, do contain some corn syrup, which allows them to harden.

“I know the maple producers from all of the maple producing states are hoping to head this off,” Steve Hardwick said. “I really hope they can head it off at the pass. For now, we are just waiting to see what happens and if we have to change our labels.”

All natural

Beekeepers and honey producers in Maine are also keeping a close eye on the possible label changes.

“Honey is unmodified from the ways the bees make it,” Richard McLaughlin, master beekeeper and president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association, said. “This is important to point out because there is no added sugar in honey — it is 100 percent non-modified.”

McLaughlin said beekeepers he’s spoken to share the concerns of maple producers that the “added sugar” label will mislead consumers.

“We have done a lot of work in the U.S. informing consumers that locally produced and raw honey is pure,” McLaughlin said. “Logic would dictate any new label would state how much naturally occuring sugar there is in something like honey with no ‘added’ sugar.”

Nothing funny about it

On the Senate floor Wednesday, King urged the FDA to step back and exempt the single-ingredient natural sweeteners from the added sugar label addition.

“These products are important us,” he said. “Most people when they say they’re going to put added sugar on the label of maple syrup think it’s kind of funny. It’s not funny to the industry.”

In April, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree also spoke against the label change during testimony at a hearing with the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies.

“The average consumer sees ‘added sugar’ and rightly thinks that an additional sweetener has been added to the food product,” Pingree testified. “I think consumers deserve to have this information so they can make informed decisions. I think it’s misleading for a jar of 100 percent honey or maple syrup to label its sugars under the ‘added sugar’ category when nothing has been added to those products.”

Hopkins said consumers could feel betrayed if they believe they have been paying a premium for natural products and read there are “added sugars.”

“If the consumers think they have been hoodwinked all these years and paying extra for pure maple syrup or honey, they may stop buying them and just start purchasing those syrups that are made from processed cane sugars and cost less money,” she said.

The FDA is expected to make a decision on the new labels in the coming weeks, and if approved, producers would have to start complying in 2020.

“We are hoping for a sweet ending to a sticky problem,” King said.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.