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.
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.
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.
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: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=101.77
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.