by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

Oct 17 2016

The FDA’s new strategic plan: open for public comment

I am late getting to the FDA’s July announcement of the release of its work plan for the next ten years, Foods and Veterinary Medicine (FVM) Program’s Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2016-2025.

The FDA organized the plan under goals for:

  • Food safety
  • Nutrition
  • Animal health
  • Organizational excellence

The FDA based the plan on basic principles:

  1. Public health is the first priority
  2. Partnerships are the key to success
  3. Scientific expertise and research are the foundation
  4. The program is committed to operating openly and transparently

Comments can be submitted on the strategic plan at any time.  Instructions for how to do so are here.

One possibility is to ask for further details.  The plan does not say how the FDA will accomplish the objectives, how much it will cost to achieve them, or whether it has adequate funding for everything it does (hint: it doesn’t).

Some of what it wants to do is puzzling.  For example, one Nutrition objective is this:

2.1: Provide and support accurate and useful nutrition information and education so consumers can choose healthier diets consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other evidence-based recommendations.

I assume this refers to Nutrition Facts labels and menu labels, but one of its sub-objectives is:

Strategy 2.1d: Promote collaboration with stakeholders, including industry, consumer, and public health groups, to enhance consumer nutrition education directed towards age and demographic groups with specific needs.

I wish the report said more about this.  Surely the FDA is not suggesting that the food industry take responsibility for nutrition education?  I hope not.

The documents:


Sep 28 2016

What does “healthy” mean (on food labels)?

As it promised in response to a petition from the KIND fruit-and-nut bar company (as I discussed in a previous post), the FDA is now asking for public comment on what “healthy” means on food package labels.

You might think that any food minimally processed from the plant, tree, animal, bird, or fish would qualify.

But “healthy” is a marketing term for processed food products (not foods).  

As Politico Morning Agriculture reminds us, things got complicated when KIND, which makes products from whole nuts, said its bars deserved to be called “healthy.”

In 2015, KIND received a warning letter from FDA arguing the company violated federal rules by using “healthy” on its packages. KIND then petitioned the agency, and, after an exchange about why the current definition is outdated, FDA decided to reverse course. For example, it requires that a food be low-fat to be labeled “healthy,” a standard that a nut-based bar doesn’t meet, while products like fat-free puddings do.

The FDA’s rules now say:

The term “healthy” and related terms (“health,” “healthful,” “healthfully,” “healthfulness,” “healthier,” “healthiest,” “healthily” and “healthiness”) may be used if the food meets the following requirements: 21 CFR 101.65(d)(2)

OK.  I know you can’t read this (you can look for it here). The point is that to qualify as “healthy,” a product has to be low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; relatively low in sodium; and contain at least 10% of the Daily Value per serving for vitamins A or C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber (with some exceptions).  There are also rules for levels of nutrients added in fortification.

The FDA wants input on whether all of this makes sense in the light of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the KIND petition.

In its inimitable FDA-speak:

While FDA is considering how to redefine the term “healthy” as a nutrient content claim, food manufacturers can continue to use the term “healthy” on foods that meet the current regulatory definition. FDA is also issuing a guidance document stating that FDA does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements for products that use the term if certain criteria described in the guidance document are met.

If I correctly understand the meaning of “does not intend to enforce the regulatory requirements,” the FDA, while waiting for your comments, will allow manufacturers to call products “healthy” as long as the products:

(1) Predominantly contain mono and polyunsaturated fats regardless of total fat content; or

(2) Contain at least ten percent of the Daily Value (DV) per serving of potassium or vitamin D.

In other words, if your food product is made with a low saturated fat oil and contains potassium or vitamin D, it is by definition “healthy.”

Correction, September 29: An FDA official wrote to say that I didn’t quite get this right.  

Actually, if a food exceeds the low fat requirement currently in our definition, we will not take any enforcement or compliance action as long as the food meets all of the other requirements in the definition, namely that it is low in saturated fat, cannot exceed the specified levels of cholesterol and sodium, and contains at least 10 percent of the daily value for beneficial nutrients.  

Second, we are not saying that foods must contain potassium or vitamin D to be labeled as “healthy.”  We are simply indicating that potassium and vitamin D can be substituted for the beneficial nutrients now listed in the current regulations, in line with the new Nutrition Facts label regulations.

My apologies to the FDA for misunderstanding the notice.

The FDA’s request is good news for KIND bars.

But it smacks of “nutritionism”—the use of these two single nutrients (as well as others on the short list of beneficial nutrients) as indicators of quality in processed food products (and don’t get me started on vitamin D, which is a hormone, not a vitamin, and best obtained by getting outside in the sun once in a while).

Understand: this effort is not about semantics; it is about marketing.

Would you like to weigh in on what you think qualifies a food as “healthy?”  Here’s how:

Aug 2 2016

The latest in soda advocacy

Two items in the case against excessive consumption of sugary beverages:

More ties to Coca-Cola at CDC

Carey Gillam, the research director for U.S. Right to Know, has been busy delving through e-mails between officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Coca-Cola.

Her previous story was followed by that official’s retirement.

This one identifies another CDC official with “a history of promoting and helping lead research funded by Coca-Cola.”

I’m quoted in the article:

Officials of public health agencies run the risk of cooptation, capture, or conflict of interest when they have close professional ties with companies whose job it is to sell food products, regardless of the effects of those products on health.

Calls for warning labels

Dean Schillinger, a doctor at UCSF and CSPI’s Michael Jacobson have co-authored an article in JAMA calling for warning labels on advertisements for sugary drinks—something that is being tried in San Francisco, albeit in the face of legal challenges.

So far, the courts have upheld the warning labels.    The authors conclude:

Implementing such policies could benefit all US residents, but could especially benefit socioeconomically vulnerable populations, including children, some of whom are exposed to a disproportionate volume of SSB advertising and often purchase these products at high rates and experience the greatest risk of chronic diseases. The decision in American Beverage Association (ABA) et al v City & County of San Francisco, if upheld by the appellate court, provides a pivotal legal precedent that could influence public health policy at local, state, and national levels related to communicating the health risks inherent to SSBs and other products.

Jul 28 2016

No wonder food labels are so hard to read

I’m fascinated by this story about how the FDA came to design the new version of the food label, soon to be seen on packages in a supermarket near you.

The article explains what the FDA was up against:

Nestlé [note: no relation] lobbied to skirt clarifying disclosures on packaging that ranges between 1.5 and 2 servings….

Fiji water complained that, given new label guidelines, the company would need to disclose the sodium in their water that they could formerly round down to zero.

Many rallied against the disclosure of added sugars, including those you’d suspect, like the International Council of Beverages Associations (which includes Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Red Bull), General Mills, Ocean Spray, the Sugar Association, and the Snack Food Association, along with those you might not, like the National Yogurt Association…Even Gerber argues that added sugars shouldn’t be given a percentage Daily Value, and should instead only be listed in grams (it’s worth remembering that Gerber is in fact owned by Nestlé).

Jul 22 2016

GMO labeling: Politico’s winners and losers

I’m just back from Spain and feeling lazy today so I’m just going to “borrow” Politico Morning Agriculture’s Jenny Hopkinson’s take on stakeholder positions on the GMO labeling bill passed by Congress and waiting for the President to sign it, which he is expected to do.

To recap: The bill allows three options for labeling GMO foods.

  • A QR code requiring a smart phone (the option favored by industry)
  • A symbol to be developed by USDA
  • A statement that the food contains genetically modified ingredients (the option favored by pro-labeling groups)

If the President ignores the veto campaign and signs the bill, the USDA will be responsible for writing regulations for all this.  In the meantime, here are some of the highlights of Jenny Hopkinson’s winners and losers.


  • Sen. Debbie Stabenow: The ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee pretty much got everything she wanted. In pushing the issue to the last few days before the law in Vermont took effect, Stabenow, who has long called for a balance of preemption with some sort of disclosure, forced Republicans to accept her terms or let the food industry deal with Vermont’s law….
  • SmartLabel: The Grocery Manufacturers Association’s newest technology venture stands to do well should companies embrace electronic and QR code labeling in the way the group thinks they will – and it sets the groundwork for companies to quickly address future food fights. The concept has been backed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and has a lot of big companies singing its praises….members will be charged just $5 per SKU, and non-members $15 per SKU…But given the huge number of food companies out there, it’s certainly not chump change. And the precedent it sets when the next labeling crisis comes up is potentially priceless.
  • President Obama: In a 2007 campaign stop, then-candidate Obama promised to label GMOs in food. When he signs the bill, he will have done just that. Credit also needs to go to his agriculture secretary, the aforementioned Tom Vilsack, who helped lay the groundwork for the eventual legislation and has already directed his staff to get cracking on implementation.
  • Pro-labeling advocates: While they have made it explicitly clear they don’t like the deal, pro-labeling groups should be patting themselves on the back…all companies must disclose what’s in their products…a testament to the power of advocates who stuck to their position and made it clear to lawmakers that consumers have the right to know.


  • GMA and the food industry: Admittedly MA [Morning Agriculture] went back and forth on which column GMA and the food industry should be in. Stopping state GMO labeling has long been the group’s top priority – but it’s come at a huge price…after spending hundreds of millions fighting state labeling campaigns and in court battles and lobbying lawmakers…On the other hand, the legislation gives food companies at least another two years – likely longer thanks to lawsuits – before they must label…
  • The Non-GMO Project: This third-party certification group – you’ve likely seen their butterfly logo all over the grocery store…But since the bill now lets them make that claim, The Non-GMO project and other certification groups stand to lose a big part of their market.
  • Sen. Pat Roberts: The Agriculture Committee chairman and Kansas Republican gets much credit for successfully championing a bill through Congress that included the preemption called for by the food and agriculture industries. But he was largely outmaneuvered and prevented from reaching his top goal of making GMO labeling voluntary.
  • Vermont: The quirky New England state may have made GMO labeling a high-profile congressional fight, but in the end its law will be in effect for less than a month. That’s a lot of time, money and effort by lawmakers and regulators for small benefit.

You don’t have to fully agree with her analysis—I wonder whether pro-labeling advocates really won on this one—to appreciate how clearly she has identified the broad range of stakeholders in this bill.

Happy weekend: There is still time to sign on to the many “veto it” campaigns (like this one from Vermont Right to Know, for example).

Jul 11 2016

Congressional Non: Non-Labeled GMO Food

Alan Guebart, the food and farm columnist for the Lincoln Journal Star, has written the best analysis of the Senate’s GMO bill that I’ve seen to date: “The Land of Non.”

Now, courtesy of Congress, our non-legislating legislature, we might soon be buying non-label labeled food.

Congress reached this state of higher non-ness by carefully noting what the American public overwhelmingly and repeatedly has said it wants—country of origin labeling (COOL) for meat and poultry and the labeling of all food that contains ingredients derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—before choosing to do just the opposite.

In 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives tackled the public’s GMO labeling demand by punting; it voted 275-to-150 in favor of voluntary GMO labeling. In the Land of Non, voluntary labeling means, of course, almost everyone will voluntarily not label food that contains GMOs.

Not to be outdone by the non-labeling labelers in the House, the U.S. Senate finally [passed]…a mandatory labeling standard—albeit one with more dodges in it than a used car lot. The shiniest clunker is something the Senate chose to call the “bioengineered food disclosure system.”

The name alone is certain evidence that Big Food’s lawyers and Big Ag’s lobbyists have already washed, rinsed, and waxed the pending bill to ensure it contains the highest possible level of effective ineffectiveness. With this outside help, anti-government government insiders reshaped the Senate bill into pure shapelessness.

His analysis is well worth reading.  It concludes:

But that’s the trick in running a non-legislating legislature, right? If you actually do anything, it must—by definition—end up doing exactly nothing.

As I’ve posted previously, some companies have already put GMO labels on their products and neither their nor our world has come to an end.

The only reason not to do this is because of industry opposition—politics.

And to summarize the politics:

  • The industry says: if GMOs are safe, they are totally acceptable.
  • Others say: even if GMOs are safe (and questions remain), there are other reasons to be concerned about them.

The food industry is always talking about consumer choice.  So how about giving consumers a real choice, not one that depends on bar codes and cell phones.  Mr. Guebart’s analysis is spot on.

Jun 30 2016

The FDA weighs in on GMO labeling

The Senate’s proposed GMO labeling bill gives food companies three options:

  • An on-package code that consumers can scan with a smartphone
  • A 1-800 number
  • A symbol to be developed by USDA

None of these does what Mars is already doing on M&Ms, for example—a straightforward, easy-to-read, quickly understandable statement that the product is “partially produced with genetic engineering.”


Now, the FDA has just produced a technical assessment of the Senate bill.

This makes it clear that the Senate has no idea what labeling rules entail.  Some examples:

  • We note that provisions to allow information regarding the GE content of food to be presented only in an electronically accessible form and not on the package label would be in tension with FDA’s statute and regulations, which require disclosures on food labels.
  • We are concerned that USDA’s regulations implementing the mandatory standard under this bill could conflict with FDA’s labeling requirements.
  • We note several points in the drafting of the bill that raise confusion.
  • It appears that the intent is to have the bill apply to all foods except those that are essentially meat, poultry, or eggs, and that the drafters may have assumed, incorrectly, that products covered by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, or the Egg Products Inspection Act are not covered by the FD&C Act.
  • [One section requires] the USDA regulations to “prohibit a food derived from an animal to be considered a bioengineered food solely because [of a certain fact]”. This is unclear — the language of “prohibit[ion]” and of ‘be[ing] considered”, if taken literally, would mean that an advocacy group that thought of these foods as being bioengineered would thereby have violated the USDA regulation and could be subject to sanctions.

The Senate bill is decidedly corporate-friendly.  It is decidedly not consumer-friendly.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

May 25 2016

Guest blog for Scientific American: the new food label

Guest Blog

The FDA’s new rules for food labeling are finally here

The changes are a step toward better health and less obesity, especially in children

By Marion Nestle on May 24, 2016

The FDA’s announcement of final rules for its overhaul of labels on food packages is a signature accomplishment of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

In 2010, in setting the agenda for Let’s Move!, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity called for improving the clarity, accuracy, and consistency of food package labels to enable parents and children to make healthier food choices.  The Task Force noted that more than half the adult public used food labels to decide what to buy, but that the current labels had hardly changed since the FDA’s regulations of 1993.

The FDA actually began work on revising the food label in 2005 with a request for public input on updating serving sizes, and it began formal rulemaking in 2008.  The FDA proposed rules and issued its last call for comments in 2014.

I attribute this nine-year process to details and politics.

First, the details. The Federal Register notice on the food label takes up 943 pages, and it takes another 170 pages to explain the changes in serving sizes.

FDA’s fact sheet on the changes explains the politics.  Most changes are relatively uncontroversial: the greater emphasis on calories, the removal of calories from fat, the requirement for “dual column” labels for “per serving” and “per package,” the updating of serving sizes to more closely reflect actual intake, and the rewording of the Daily Value footnote.  As Michelle Obama put it, ”you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.  So that’s a phenomenal achievement.”

Indeed it is, especially in light of a political climate in which the food industry and Congress do all they can to undermine public health measures in school food and child nutrition programs.

Mrs. Obama alluded to the ongoing political controversy: “most important of all, this label will tell you how much sugar in your snack was added during processing, and how much of it comes from ingredients like fruit.”

The new food label distinguishes between intrinsic sugars in food and those added in manufacturing; it also sets a Daily Value for the maximum amount of sugars recommended for diets of 2,000 calories a day.  I credit the Center for Science in the Public Interest for this accomplishment; it petitioned FDA for these changes in 2013 (its first added sugar petition was in 1999).

The Washington Post got right to the core of the controversy: “Why the sugar industry hates the FDA’s new Nutrition Facts label.” Americans consume roughly twice the amount of sugar recommended for good health, and sugars are rampant in processed foods.  All it takes is one 16-ounce soft drink to reach the 50-gram daily maximum.

The Sugar Association, the trade group for producers of sugar cane and sugar beets invokes science as the reason for its intense opposition: “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America.”

The Association argues, correctly, that the sugars that occur naturally in fruits are biochemically identical to those added in manufacturing.  But this argument misses how added sugars dilute the nutritional value of food products.  Much research supports the health benefits of eating fruit, whereas added sugars raise risks for obesity and other chronic conditions.

The Sugar Association does not really care about science.  It cares about what will happen to sales if people read labels and reject products with added sugars.  This, of course, is one of the purposes of Added Sugars on food labels.

The Association has reason to worry.  Since 1999, per capita consumption of sugars has fallen in the United States, although it still exceeds the 10 percent of calories recommended by the World Health Organization last year.  The new label should accelerate that downward trend.

An even greater worry is that labeling added sugars might encourage manufacturers to reduce the amounts in their products.  The FDA’s listing of trans-fatty acids on food labels in 2006 led to an immediate reductionin the use of hydrogenated oils as ingredients in food products.  I expect to see grams of sugars decline by the time these rules take effect in May 2018 (small food producers get until May 2019).

I see the new label as a political win for public health and Let’s Move!  But let’s keep this in perspective.  Healthful diets are based on foods, not food products.  We would all be healthier eating foods that do not come with Nutrition Facts panels, and saving most of those that do for once-in-a-while occasions.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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