News Brief: FDA Plans to Reevaluate Food Labeling Regulations

In All, Food Products, General, Nutrition by Keri Szejda

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon reevaluate federal regulations on “Nutrient Content Claims”. Nutrient Content Claims refer to product labels that characterize the levels of nutrients in food (whether directly or by implication). The FDA announcement follows a kerfuffle between the FDA and KIND LLC regarding the use of labels such as “healthy” on their products, despite such products falling short of the FDA’s requirements in relation to such claims.

Currently, the federal regulations on nutrient content claims are based on strict rules about whether foods meet requirements (including specific conditions for “total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and other nutrients”). The FDA is responsible for ensuring that foods are properly labeled, and violations of nutrient content claims can result in legal action.

The regulations have a high degree of specificity. Here are a few examples:

In order to label a food product as a “good source” of calcium, the food must contain 10-19% of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) and be declared on the nutrition label as the percent of Daily Value (% DV).

A label can’t make a claim that a food is “low” in or “free” of a particular nutrient if that food is normally low in or free of the nutrient – so putting on a label of “fat-free broccoli” is a no-no. But putting on a label of “broccoli, a fat-free food” is okay because it refers to all foods of that type.

In the case of using the descriptor “healthy,” a food must be consistent with dietary recommendations, including meeting specific conditions for total fat (low), saturated fat (low), cholesterol (low), and other nutrients (at least 10% of the DV for Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Protein, and Fiber). Exceptions are made for fruits, vegetables, and enriched cereals.

At issue here is that KIND bars – packaged snacks made with whole fruit, grains, and nuts – contain a lot of nuts. And though nuts are widely considered nutritious, the amount used in KIND bars pushed the saturated fat beyond the level that the FDA considers “healthy”.  One of the conditions for labeling a food “healthy” is that the saturated fat content must be less than 2 grams per “Reference Amount Customarily Consumed per Eating Occasion”. Nuts are high in unsaturated fat, but do contain some saturated fat. One ounce of walnuts, for example, contains 15.9 g of unsaturated fat and 1.7 g of saturated fat. So if a product contains a lot nuts, it will likely no longer meet the current requirements to be labeled “healthy”.

The US Dietary Guidelines for Americans is developed by the federal government to provide evidence-based nutrition information to health professionals. The most recent update (2015-2020) recommends a shift toward healthy eating patterns that limit saturated fat and transfat intake (as opposed to limiting total fat or the healthy types of fat prevalent in nuts).

This may be an indicator that the FDA is behind the times when it comes to some of its labeling requirements. Pressure to review the requirements regarding the term “healthy,” including a citizen petition, appears to have been a tipping point for the FDA.

The FDA and KIND LLC have since resolved their disagreement after the company agreed to use the term “healthy” only in regard to its corporate philosophy, but the FDA has offered this statement regarding a planned revision to nutrient content claims, including the rules for claiming a food is “healthy”:

“Consumers want to make informed food choices and it is the FDA’s responsibility to help them by ensuring labels provide accurate and reliable nutrition information. In light of evolving nutrition research, forthcoming Nutrition Facts Labeling final rules, and a citizen petition, we believe now is an opportune time to reevaluate regulations concerning nutrient content claims, generally, including the term “healthy.” We plan to solicit public comment on these issues in the near future.”

What’s next? The FDA will undergo a comment period to solicit public opinion, but we don’t yet know when that will be. More information can be found in the Labeling and Nutrition section of the FDA website, where they’ll announce the public comment period.