Good Product … Bad Nutrition Labeling

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 This is a guest blog post by Carol Harvey, director of nutrition labeling at Palate Works.

Ever wonder how FDA or a labeling consultant evaluates a food product’s labeling? Here is a fairly typical (abridged) example, using a whole grain product that was sent to Fooducate in a press packet. Comments refer mainly to one flavor (Red Quinoa & Brown Rice) of Village Harvest’s flash frozen whole grain medleys.

Village Harvest

First impressions: Nice size (2 servings) and graphics, focusing on convenience and good quality ingredients. Serving size (142 g, about 1 cup of cooked grains) is close enough to the FDA-established portion (140 g), which is a “reference amount” for comparison purposes, NOT a recommendation of how much to eat (that would vary greatly based on one’s size, age, activity level, etc.). The Nutrition Facts panel has proper layout, font sizes and rounding of data.

Things get more interesting when we look at the nutrient and health claims. The press materials for the Red Quinoa & Brown Rice state, “Both grains reduce cholesterol.”


This is an implied drug claim and not approved for food products. Per FDA: “Health claims are limited to claims about disease risk reduction and cannot be claims about the cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease.

What they want to say (to avoid an FDA warning letter) is either nothing (no claim), or something that will take a bit more space (required on packaging and any form of “labeling,” including web sites). The whole statement needs to be used, not a cherry-picked version:

“Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber “may” or “might” reduce the risk of heart disease”


“Development of heart disease depends on many factors. Eating a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber may lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.”

Note the words “MAY” and “RISK.” You can’t say or imply that a food product “does” reduce cholesterol or cancer …or anything, unless it is sold as a drug and has been tested and approved as a drug for that purpose. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of food manufacturers doing just that.

Other requirements for use of the “reduces risk of heart disease” claim for fruits/vegetables/grains (apparently what they are shooting for based on use of a “heart healthy” symbol on the packaging):

1. The claim indicates that development of heart disease depends on many factors;

2. The claim does not attribute any degree of risk reduction for coronary heart disease to diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber;

3. The food contains, without fortification, at least 0.6 g of soluble fiber per reference amount customarily consumed;

4. The content of soluble fiber shall be declared in the nutrition information panel.

Most of this info is missing and would need to be provided if the products are to be in compliance.

Here is another example of poor labeling practices: exaggerated protein info for Village Harvest Quinoa:

“[Quinoa] is the only plant product that has all 8 essential amino acids….”

 Actually, most, if not all, plant foods contain all the essential amino acids, but not always in large quantities (e.g., you could get your RDA for protein from bananas, but it would take 37 bananas). And soybeans are considered to have a higher “quality” of protein than quinoa, in that fewer servings need to be consumed to get your RDA for all the essential amino acids (approx. 4 servings vs. 6 for quinoa). Legumes in general have more protein (on a per-serving basis) than grains and seeds (quinoa is a seed), although quinoa is up there with some legumes.

But wait… there’s more. From the marketing materials:

1. “Brown rice provides selenium, known to boost the immune system and protect against free-radicals and cancer.” There’s no mention of how much selenium is in the product.

2. “Quinoa alone has: Magnesium – relaxes blood vessels, helps with migraines and high blood pressure… .” OK, then how much magnesium is in one serving of the product? It isn’t stated/substantiated. But even if it were, these types of claims (the product literature is packed with them), are considered disease mitigation claims and not allowed for foods.

That said… these flash-frozen products have some true benefits. The Red Quinoa & Brown Rice is a good source of fiber (3 g), low in sodium (none added), and has a fair amount of iron (but at 8% DV it is not a “good source”, need 10% to claim “good”) and a decent amount of protein for a grain/seed product. These products also are very convenient (can be microwaved in a couple minutes). Topped with sautéed veggies and sausage/seafood/tofu/etc. you’ve got a good meal in less than ½ hour.


Red Quinoa-Brown Rice - Dish


Here’s our last example for today: the allergen warning on Village Harvest’s Farro & Red Rice product:

Farro is a variety of wheat and contains gluten. The Farro & Red Rice package should declare “wheat” right under or adjacent to the ingredients list, since “wheat” is not spelled out in the ingredients list itself. They instead declare “Contains: wheat” under the “best by” date, where you might not notice it. On the web site, there is no mention of wheat or gluten for this product.

Farro-Red Rice contains

Bottom line: companies should not make health claims unless they really know what they are doing. Unfortunately, it’s too tempting with lots of product competition and little regulatory enforcement.

Here are the FDA regs for use of the health claim about fiber in fruits/vegs/grains and risk of heart disease:

Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail [AT] yahoo [DOT] com.

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  • Comcube22

    Nice information, valuable and excellent design, share good
    stuff with good ideas and concepts, lots of great information and inspiration,
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  • EVIL food scientist

    The FDA warning letters are CHOCK FULL of “unapproved new drug” claims and unapproved health claims these days.  Everyone wants to put their new snake oil claims on packages, but now the FDA is going after folks who make unapproved claims on websites and other media as well.  It’s hard to be a health-huckster these days.

  • CT

    Fooducate, will you forward this information for this product (and photos of the label) to FDA’s labeling compliance group for their review?  It seems like they would appreciate the note.  

  • Go

    I would like to add, although it is convenient to pop into the microwave and it includes beans/quinoa…read the ingredients. I have found them to contain items that are questionable like natural flavors, lots of sodium.

  • Joe Gozzi

    Thanks for the informative article on nutritional claims. I developed the Frozen Village Harvest Whole Grain products so that there would be an obvious choice in the market for people who want to eat right, but don’t feel like they have the time to cook. We are a really small company that tries to do things right and we feel like we’re succeeding. We removed the materials created by some of our enthusiastic younger employees earlier this year, as we realized that we don’t want or need to make dubious claims. Our packaging does not make these claims, and we still strongly believe that it’s one of the healthiest whole grain lines in the grocery stores today. As a small company that’s really trying to do right by introducing consumers to a healthier way of eating, its discouraging that this article focuses on materials that consumers will never see, rather than highlighting it’s benefits. 
    Once again, this is a no sodium, no artificial ingredient, 100% whole grain line. For people who want to add whole grains like quinoa, wheatberries, farro, and brown rice to their diets, this line is perfect. For people who want to get more protein from non-animal sources, this line is terrific. For parents who want their kids to eat brown, instead of white rice, this line is amazing. Please feel free to contact me if you would like more information. 
    Sincerely, Joe Gozzi  

    • Fooducate

      Joe – thanks for your input. Again, the gist of this post was not to bash your products, but rather point out how challenging and tricky nutrition labeling is. As a manufacturer, you need to add to your many worries, one more – “Am I compliant with FDA labeling requirements”.

      • Mk_turtle

        Most of the discussion was about marketing materials, not the nutritional label. It seems like the title of the post itself was more misleading than anything on Village Harvest packaging.

        • Carol

          FDA considers marketing materials, web sites and advertisements of any kind to be “labeling” when nutrition/health claims/statements are made, so it is accurate to call the marketing claims “labeling.”

  • AshleyK

    I have to say that I find it a bit disconcerting that a whole food product’s label is being criticized here when there are so many other dubious product claims saturating the market, i.e. what about high fiber claims made with inulin vs. whole grains?

    • Fooducate

      Ashley – we tackle the bad products almost every day. That wasn’t the point of this post. See our response to Joe below.

  • LJSM

    Wow. It’s the opposite of some foods, where it’s unhealthy but the ingredients say it’s good or something.