It’s been a decade coming, but the snail of food and beverage regulation, also known as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has at last sent revised guidelines for nutrition facts labels to the White House, according to The Associated Press (AP).
Introduced to the U.S. on Jan. 6, 1993, nutrition facts labels have long served as one of the best ways for consumers to monitor their health by what they eat and drink. However, as time passes and the industries progress, the FDA recognizes that an update could further ensure the safety of consumers — the administration’s top priority — and mollify politicians and think tanks.
Regulatory attorney Justin Prochnow, a partner with Greenberg Traurig, said that while he’s unsure of what exactly the guidelines may address, the eventual announcement will have significant implications for the food and beverage industries.
“It will be a big deal,” Prochnow said. “Everyone will have to revamp all their labels.”
He added that serving sizes, one of the most deceptive labeling issues, will likely be one area where the FDA might opt to provide more clarity. Currently, according to the FDA, a serving size for beverages is 8 oz. But some companies choose to show the nutrition facts for a full container, while others show them by serving.
For example, a beverage that has a higher sugar and calorie content may elect to include the nutrition facts of a single serving, thereby minimizing the potential backlash of health-conscious consumers shopping for lower figures. On the other side of the spectrum, beverage companies that use artificial sweeteners to shrink a beverage’s sugar count may opt to label the nutrition information of the whole product instead of an individual serving. This strategy could increase the figures for protein and dietary fiber, for example, without seeing much of a rise in the sugar numbers.
Prochnow said that the FDA doesn’t like it much when companies can bend the same product in multiple ways to optimize their own interests.
“Companies play with the serving size depending on what they’re trying to emphasize,” Prochnow said.
Here are a few other aspects of nutrition facts labels that could be targeted by the FDA, according to Prochnow and The AP.
The FDA could require companies to label certain nutrition facts, such as calorie count, on the front of the package, rather than on the side or back. Some companies, such as The Coca-Cola Co., Inc., have already begun doing so even without a mandate by the FDA.
Following the previous point, the FDA could require companies to further elucidate the calorie count of products.
The FDA could opt to change grams into teaspoons in certain cases.
Nutrition advocates hope that the FDA mentions sugars and syrups that don’t occur naturally in foods and drinks.
Advocates also suggest that the FDA should require companies to label the percentage of whole wheat used in the product, rather than just claim that the product contains whole wheat.
The FDA could include an update on separate nutrition facts tables for nutrient-dense products.
Prochnow said that the announcement of the proposed guidelines represents a departure from the FDA’s usual day-to-day actions.
“When the FDA sends out warning letters, it’s usually a lot more with the claims,” he said.
The administration’s battle against questionable claims has received far more publicity in recent months compared to the nutrition facts guidelines. Over the past few months, the FDA has established guidelines that differentiate beverages and supplements, taken steps toward defining the modifier “natural” and proposed measures that would attempt to nearly eliminate trans fats from the marketplace.