FDA’s Proposed Rules on Food Labeling

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has extended the commenting period to August 1st, 2014 for the proposed rules on food labeling (Docket ID: FDA-2012-N-1210).

I’ve written previously on the proposed rules. Here is a quick summary:

I applauded 3 major components of the ruling:

  1. Label added sugars in addition to natural sugars
  2. Addition of column on label to include both per serving and per package
  3. Highlight “calories”, “serving size” and “percent of daily value” through changes to the size, style, and position of font

And I questioned 1 component of the ruling:

  1. Revision of serving sizes of foods that can reasonably be consumed at one-eating occasion and updating, modifying, and establishing certain reference amounts customarily consumed. For example, this component would require that both a 12 oz bottle of soda and a 20 oz bottle of soda be labelled as a single serving.

I argued that this is a mistake for the following reasons:

  1. Research shows that people consume more when the container is larger. If we use the quantity of food or drink that is “reasonably consumed at one-eating occasion” or “customarily consumed” as a measure of what is safe, as is the implicit role of the FDA, then we fail to consider how a larger container may increase what is ordinarily consumed to levels that pose a health risk.

I suggested that new rule should reflect what is safe rather than what is “customarily consumed”. And, if the FDA insists that we use the quantity an average person consumes as a measure of what is safe, then we should at the least account for external factors (such as container size) that increase the point at which our body tells us we’re satisfied.

I pointed to 2 potential unintended consequences of this rule:

  1. Companies might discontinue smaller container sizes
  2. Consumers might choose larger containers over smaller containers with increased frequency

I’m revisiting this issue today after scanning the comments submitted thus far.

I found one submission from Behavioral Science and Regulation Group at Harvard that resonates with my concern. We both note that “serving size” is an implicit endorsement to consumers of what is an appropriate or healthy quantity. While I suggest the FDA use a different measure of “serving size” that is more in line with a healthful serving, the Harvard group suggests to change the wording of “serving size” to reduce implicit endorsement of healthfulness:

As the FDA acknowledges in its proposed rule, more than half of consumers perceive the term “serving size” to be a recommended serving size, not an amount customarily consumed. For those people that would, in the absence of a serving size, have eaten a small portion, the inclusion of a perceived serving size recommendation could lead them to eat more than they otherwise would. This is because these consumers believe that the FDA has implicitly endorsed the serving size as healthy. Consuming larger portion sizes is related to increased calorie consumption. While the rule’s revision of the serving size volumes and increased use of “whole package” labeling is appropriate and important, it will also exacerbate this problem, because the perceived recommendations will typically be for even larger portions […]

We suggest that the word “serving” and the phrase “serving size” be changed to avoid an implied endorsement. Changing “serving” to a word that does not suggest the context of a meal, like “unit” or “quantity,” may mitigate the endorsement effect.

This group from Harvard also endorses the FDA’s changes that use visual cues to increase clarity for the consumer:

The result is a nutrition label that behavioral science indicates will decrease the time consumers spend finding information, improve readability, focus attention on the most important information, and make information easier to process and remember.

 

And they make a fabulous recommendation on how to help consumers “avoid too much” of ingredients that are known to pose a health risk:

The FDA can better communicate product healthfulness by grouping nutrients into mutually-exclusive evaluative categories and using color to highlight healthful ingredients or particularly high or low nutrient levels.

The comment is worth reading in its entirety (see comment  from Behavioral_Science and Regulation Group here).

It was not surprising to find that the comment period was probably extended in response to the numerous requests from industries that anticipate adverse affects from the ruling: Juice Product Association, Specialty Food Association, American Beverage Association, Council for Responsible Nutrition, Snack Food Association, and Grocery Manufacturers Association to name a few. Though there was one notable exception in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Many of these industry representatives jumped in to voice their concern. It seems the cranberry industry is particularly concerned about requirements to label added sugars. There were several representatives from various companies including Gary Dempze of Gaynor Cranberry Co., Inc. who says, “unlike other fruit, cranberries have little natural sugar and, therefore, have a uniquely tart taste. Cranberry products need to be sweetened so consumers can enjoy their health benefits.”

Other supportive comments come from Weight Watchers, the American Diabetes Association, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, and the American Dental Association to name a few of the big ones.

All-in-all it is fun to read through comments and see where different institutions fall on the issue. Give it a whirl.

 

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