Len Heflich: Time to kill nutrition labeling initiatives

by Len Heflich
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To accommodate labeling changes, bakers will have to redesign packaging.

The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) needs a new vision for nutrition labeling. The current slate of labeling initiatives is misguided, unscientific and overly complicated. Moreover, they will cost a lot of money and confuse consumers instead of helping them improve their diets. The baking industry has commented on these initiatives and has asked for clarification and guidance. It’s time to say that these initiatives will not be improved by clarification or additional guidance. It is time to kill these initiatives and start over with a new vision focused on consumer benefit.

len heflich
Len Heflich, contributing editor. Baking & Snack.
The current labeling efforts include redefining dietary fiber and added sugar, a Nutrition Facts Panel redesign, redefining folic acid and G.M.O. labeling. Each initiative will require significant changes in the nutrition label, analytical testing, updating nutrition databases and recalculating ingredient and finished product nutrient values. To top it off, the implementation deadlines for each have a different date. The result is a lack of definition, lack of coordination, greater cost, complexity and no benefit to consumers. Let’s examine each.

There are many types and sources of dietary fiber that make a definition difficult. Therefore, the current definition is based on analysis. This makes it easy to quantify the amount of dietary fiber present in a food product with many different sources and types of fiber material. Analysis is no longer an acceptable way to quantify dietary fiber. A manufacturer must calculate it based on the content of specific, F.D.A.-recognized dietary fiber materials present in the food. The recognized dietary fibers are limited to intrinsic and intact plant-based materials and isolated or synthetic non-digestible carbohydrates. This definition eliminates many of the dietary fiber materials used for decades and puts the onus on industry to demonstrate physiological benefits in the gut.

The intent of the added-sugar labeling initiative is to make consumers aware of how much sugar is added to a food product so that they can reduce their sugar intake. The goal is a good one. However, sugar is sugar. There is no difference between sugar that is intrinsic in a food from the sugar that is added by formulation. Consumers should be looking at the total sugar contained in a food when deciding on what and how much to eat. The only way to confirm “added sugar” is via the formulation, so the F.D.A. will want proprietary formulations. Sugars are created and consumed during processing, so what is added may not be what is actually present in the final food.

The F.D.A. plans to separate naturally occurring folic acid from added folate. The added folate’s improved absorption makes it physiologically 1.6 times better than natural. In the past, we could simply analyze for folic content. But since there is no way to differentiate natural from added folic acid by analysis, under the new definition, the F.D.A. will once again want to see proprietary formulations. The current definition has worked for 30 years, and the addition of folic acid to baked fgoods has been a great success for consumers by resulting in decreased incidence of spina bifida and perhaps even heart disease.

The F.D.A. wants to update the format of the Nutrition Facts Panel. The results are that the industry will need to redesign all packaging to accommodate the larger panel that features several changes. We can argue whether there is any benefit to consumers from the changes, but the FDA has not published any consumer studies to confirm that. The changes add complication, cost and potential confusion for consumers with no clear benefit.

Lastly, there is G.M.O. labeling. Let’s hope the U.S. Department of Agriculture can achieve a simple and clear definition of what is genetically modified and how to label it. The other initiatives need to be stopped and reconsidered in light of a nutrition labeling vision based on consumer benefit.
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