New bill focuses on fuzziness in food labeling rules

Posted by
September 24, 2013

New legislation introduced last week in Congress is attempting to tame the wild, wild west of food labeling.

Addressing some of the most confusing and misused terms on food products, such as “natural,” “whole grain,” and “healthy,” the bill also calls for both an overhaul of the ingredient label and the addition of a standard front-of-package nutrition labeling system for processed foods that would include a calories- per-serving designation positioned right where you are most likely to see it.

Introduced by Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the “Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013” would be the first big update in food labeling, according to DeLauro, since 1990, and in some cases, she said, since 1938.

Some of the labeling issues covered by the bill include:

Restricting use of the term “natural”
“Natural,” or “all natural ingredients” are probably the most commonly used misleading terms on food packages. The Food and Drug Administration says that natural is “difficult” to define, and that it “has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

The new bill takes that a big step further, proposing that a product may also not use the term “natural” if an ingredient “has undergone chemical changes, such as corn syrup (which would certainly include high fructose corn syrup), chemically modified starch, and cocoa processed with alkali” as examples.

Ingredient label formatting
This is a big issue over just how small the print on a food product package can be – or to be more precise, the words on the ingredient label. The proposed new legislation aims to make ingredient labels more easily readable through fixes such as upper and lower case characters (instead of all caps as they currently are), better contrast between the words and background colors, and bullet points between ingredients. This would enable shoppers who forgot to bring a magnifying glass to the store with them to know exactly what it is they are considering consuming.

Clarifying the whole-grain claim to fame
Like “natural,” the use of the hazy terms “whole grains,” or “made with whole grains,” are best taken with a ‘grain’ of salt.  We’ve been told that whole grains are good for us and we need to eat more of them, but how do we know how much are actually in a product? And just what does “made with whole grains” mean, anyway?

Many food products tout whole grains, when in fact their first ingredient is just “enriched flour.” And even if “whole” as in whole wheat four or whole oats is at the top of the list, it’s still an unknown what the exact percentage of whole grains the product contains. This new bill would cut through those often half-baked terms by requiring any food label that uses come-ons pertaining to whole grains to disclose exactly what percent of whole grains the product contains. Items that use the term “wheat” or “whole wheat” must likewise disclose the percentage of whole wheat that refers to.

‘Added sugars’ specifics
A much needed and long-awaited change to the nutrition facts label (NFL), this provision would require that side-panel information box to specify what added “sugars” – meaning sugars that are not naturally occurring – a food product contains.

The “sugars” designation on the NFL includes fructose, glucose, lactose and sucrose (cane or beet sugar), with no current information provided as to whether the “sugars” are naturally occurring or added. Plain milk, for example, contains 12 grams of  naturally-occurring “sugars,” and apple cider with no sweeteners added contains 30 grams. At the same time, an eight-ounce Pepsi that is made with high fructose corn syrup contains 28 grams.

Full caffeine disclosure
The new rules would do away with vague references to the amount of caffeine in a drink by requiring disclosure of actual caffeine amounts in products containing more than 10 milligrams.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), told Food Identity Theft in an email that he believes “the legislation is important because it would require the FDA to do many of the things that it has the authority to do, but hasn’t done.”

“Perhaps most importantly,” Jacobson added,  “the bill would require the FDA to institute a system of front-of-package symbols to convey the overall nutritional quality of foods.”

Certainly “front-of-package” labeling concepts are not a new idea. In fact, the marketplace has seen a wide variety of versions from grocery trade associations, supermarket chains, big box retailers and brands themselves – all while the FDA can’t seem to come up with any recommendations for new and easy-to-understand package nutrition labeling.

The bill would require a single, standard front-of package labeling system for all food products  required to have a nutrition facts label,  a proposal designed to “facilitate consumer selection of healthy products.”

The proposed legislation is certain to face numerous hurdles and objections. “The Grocery Manufacturers Association has already opposed the bill,” said Jacobson, “and the Republican House of Representatives certainly won’t rush it through.”

“But, in any case,” he added, “the bill certainly sends a signal to the FDA that it must do a better job of ensuring informative, honest labels.”