The United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made commendable strides since the packaging and advertising claims of the 1960s. For instance, take a look at this advertisement from the early 1900s. Will our generations’ ads look this outlandish in 30 years? I hope not.
Manufacturers were once only required to include nutritional content on store packaging, but now due to FDA mandating, we are able to receive nutritional content in many chain restaurants that have over 20 locations. Although we have made great advancements in including nutritional information on the label, what about false claims?
It is interesting to take note of the product claims plastering the product labels and packaging while you are at the grocery store: “Sustainable,” “just like grandma’s,” “home cooking,” “organic,” “natural,” and “home-style”. (I didn’t realize “grandma” made things out of a box in the 1950s!). At the Innova Market Insights IFT Food Expo this year, “researchers tracked 987 new products that use the world “simple,” “simplest” or “simplicity” in 2009, compared to 467 in 2008” (and that is just including product claims including different versions of ONE word).
One claim that can be made for conventional foods and dietary supplements is “nutrient content.” However, the FDA is increasingly concerned with how harmful supposedly nutrient-content food can actually be. According to an article written by Marion Nestle and David Ludwig, ” [At one point] the FDA permitted food packages to indicate “contains 7 essential nutrients”, but continued to prohibit statements that food or products could prevent, treat, or mitigate disease.”
Since then, several products have ‘stirred up’ the marketplace and certain regulations became more relaxed. Ludwig points out that after Kellogg Cereal made ‘health claims’ in 1984, other companies saw that Kellogg’s market share increased by 47%. Competitors wanted to be able to follow the trend. Since this, the FDA has ruled that ‘substantiated’ health claims are acceptable.
BUT, what exactly is a ‘substantiated health claim?” There is gray area between a health claim and health “guidance” (which only suggests dietary patterns). Under this act, even fruits and vegetables are not eligible to make a “health claim.” It would be considered a dietary guidance, since they maintain a healthy structure. Although the FDA has stated they must be truthful, the dietary guidance statements are NOT subject to FDA review. Thus, many products find ‘loopholes’ into making false label claims.
Not only are companies making health claims by added text to their product labels, but some product names suggest health benefits, such as Slim Fast. The word ‘fast’ is overlooked since it does not detail specific claims explaining how much weight loss the consumer will experience and what timeframe they will lose weight within. Another, and possibly the most disappointing claim, is seeing the term “ONLY 100 CALORIES”. The disappointment comes when you take a closer look and realize that the serving size is less than one ounce!
My suggestion is for the FDA to make a more universal plan of action. Semantics causes a great deal of the problems, since many countries have different regulations and opposite ideas of what is healthy and what isn’t. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in the European Union will soon require a warning label on products with six food color additives. This is a result of a link found between harmful additives and hyperactivity in children. Thus, Europe would like to discontinue use of synthetic materials and replace them with natural alternatives. While Europe moves towards natural food color additives, the United States has products such as Green Ketchup.
Another recent event occurred due to packaging procedures not being unified involves a miscommunication regarding bi-lingual label requirements in Vancouver. A Vancouver grocer was ‘out’ $20,000.00 because a cheese label “said “feta” or “Monterey jack” but failed to include the word “cheese.” She had to remove products from her shelves in order to comply with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Europe and other countries should form a common language, so the same guideline applies to all parts of the world. Unifying terminology and classifying claims would make a colossal impact on decreasing the deceptive nature of product labels. Perhaps a move like this will not work without the help of the people and marketers. For instance, in the UK there is a campaign being implemented called ‘Change4Life.’ In this campaign, the government works with the marketers in order to decrease obesity by informing customers of nutritional content on product labels. Big brands such as Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart are able to unite through these marketing efforts.
What is your take on the current nutrition labeling controversy? Do you freedom of speech gives companies have a right to establish said health claims? Let the FDA know; the FDA is looking for our input, afterall. What would you suggest to the FDA?
Voice your opinion! Visit the FDA site and select “submit a comment.” Supply the number: FDA-2010-N-0298; then select “search” button.