In Vermont, Pure Outrage Over Pure Syrup

Dave and Sue Folino collect sap from their Vermont forest yearly, boiling it down into maple syrup they market as “pure.”

Soon, under a new regulation, the couple may need something else on its labels:

“Added Sugars.”

Their response: Huh?

“Anyone with any sense would go, ‘that’s dumb,’ ” Mr. Folino says. “All we do is get rid of water from pure maple sap.”

A deep philosophical debate is playing out in Vermont and a few other states over the fundamental nature of maple syrup and honey. Can it be an added sugar if no sugar is added?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says yes, and has said it will require maple syrup and honey makers to include that added-sugars disclosure on their “Nutrition Facts” labels—part of a revamp of America’s nutrition-labeling rules as the nation battles obesity.

Vermonters say their syrup—and outrage—is pure.

“That’s crazy,” says maple-syrup fan Andy Olanoff, 76, of the labeling rule. The retired Rutland, Vt., educator pours locally made syrup on a blueberry pancake every Thursday morning with friends.

“It’s totally unjust,” he says. “It’s not fair to the maple-syrup producers. It’s not fair to the consumers either.”

For the nation’s largest maple syrup producer, nothing less than a pillar of the state’s reputation is at stake.

“This issue gets the core of Vermont’s brand,” says Anson Tebbetts, the state’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets, whose family farm has a maple sugar house and whose father was once pictured on a maple syrup can. “We’ve taken tremendous pride in the fact that Vermonters produce a pure product that has no additives. A label stuck on it saying it has added sugar would just add confusion.”

The FDA’s new rule says its definition of added sugars “includes sugars that are either added during the processing of foods, or are packaged as such, and include sugars (free, mono- and disaccharides), sugars from syrups and honey.”

By the government’s definition, pure honey and maple syrup themselves are added sugars because, like table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, they add calories to the diet but few or no nutrients.

Maple syrup and honey makers worry the label might lead consumers to think they’ve added sugar. “We have never added sugar to pure maple syrup,” says Mr. Folino, who with his wife owns Hillsboro Sugarworks in Starksboro, Vt. They are among producers asking the FDA to exempt them or change the label.

More than 3,000 comments poured in to the FDA in recent weeks on the new rule and a proposed compromise—many at the urging of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, who directed Vermonters to a webpage titled “100% Pure: Maple and Democracy” with a link to submit comments to the agency.

“Stop trying to fix things that don’t need fixing,” wrote a Vermont commenter.

“Are you people insane?” wrote one from Indiana. “Your proposed rule will completely undermine consumers’ faith in the purity of honey and maple syrup.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who has said he makes maple syrup at home, tweeted on Thursday that the agency has “heard the concerns,” and “will advance a new approach to how we treat maple syrup and honey under the new nutrition facts label.” An FDA spokeswoman declined to comment on what that approach might be.

Photo: Bryan Anselm for The Wall Street Journal