In this March 9, 2016, file photo, a bottle of maple syrup are displayed at the Merrifield Farm and Sugar Shack in Gorham, Maine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reconsidering its plan to label pure maple syrup and honey as containing added sugars. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Maine’s maple and honey producers applauded news coming out of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week, announcing the agency is reconsidering a plan requiring “added sugar” be included on all pure maple syrup and honey labels.

The state’s producers of the natural sweeteners feared the proposed labeling requirements would undo decades of industry marketing.

As part of a campaign aimed at educating consumers about excess sugar in their diets, the FDA had proposed 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

Three thousand comments and hours of feedback later, the agency is admitting this may not have been the best plan for the state’s $20 million annual maple syrup industry, the third largest in the country, producing 539,000 gallons last year.

This week the FDA issued a statement that, based on those comments it had received on the issue, it plans to “swiftly formulate a revised approach that makes key information available to consumers in a workable way.”

This is good news for the folks who tap Maine’s maple trees and work with bees.

“I look at the FDA statement as a promise from the federal government that it will be taking another look at this and will change the label requirements,” said Lyle Merrifield, of Merrifield Farm in Gorham and president of the Maine Maple Producers Association. “We are not sure what the final label will look like, but we should get what we are hoping for.”

What Merrifield and his fellow natural sweetener producers are hoping for are labels that state in plain, clear language that pure maple and pure honey are just that — nothing more added, including sugar.

In the case of the FDA’s original label recommendations, when it came to pure maple syrups and honey, “added sugar” meant 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 had 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 adviser to the Maine Maple Producers Association.

“Of course it would have been easier for [the FDA] to make one label to fit everyone,” Merrifield said. “They just did not understand about maple and honey, but they should certainly understand now.”

Initially, the only compromise the FDA offered was allowing maple and honey producers to place a small “t” next to “added sugar” indicating a footnote in very small print on the label explaining the product is all natural sugar with nothing added.

“The feedback that FDA has received is that the approach laid out in the draft guidance does not provide the clarity that the FDA intended,” according to the agency’s statement. “It is important to FDA that consumers are able to effectively use the new Nutrition Facts label to make informed, healthy dietary choices.”

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation as well as state agricultural officials had lobbied hard against the “added sugar” label.

“We are pleased that FDA is reconsidering their guidance on the ‘added sugar’ label,” Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walt Whitcomb said. “Response to the ‘added sugar’ warning from Maine’s agricultural community has been overwhelmingly negative. The label is both confusing, misleading and inappropriate for a healthy, natural product.”

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, had testified against the proposal and on Thursday indicated she was pleased the confusing label is headed back to the drawing board.

“I appreciate the FDA’s efforts to help consumers make more informed choices, including by spelling out how much sugar is added to the food they eat,” she said. “The [proposed] label was an affront of sorts to producers in Maine, who take great pride and care in the purity of what they bottle.”

In speaking on the Senate Floor last week, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King also called for the labels to be reconsidered.

“This is simply common sense — if sugar is not added to the product, it should not need a label for ‘added sugar,’” King said this week.“I am glad that the FDA has recognized the difference between the policy’s original intent and the possible impact on honey and maple producers.”

Merrifield is confident whatever the FDA comes up with will be an improvement on the original recommendation, which he said could have done major damage to the state’s maple and honey industries.

“These are multi-million dollar industries for Maine,” King said. “I hope to work with the FDA as they craft a new policy that gives consumers the facts they need without harming our pure products.”

Merrifield agrees

“I think it would have impacted us and especially going after new customers,” Merrifield said. “Our standard and old customers know there is no ‘added sugar’ and just would have shaken their heads at it, but newcomers would have been confused.”

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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.