by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FDA

Oct 22 2007

FDA hearings on salt

The FDA has just announced that it will be holding public hearings on November 29 to discuss issues related to salt labeling.  Right now, the FDA considers salt Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for human consumption but petitions from Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups are challenging that designation.  Should the FDA instead regulate salt as a food additive?  How could the FDA best use its regulatory authority to help Americans reduce their salt intake?  Expect fireworks at this hearing as the various stakeholders–health advocates vs. industry–weigh in.

Sep 10 2007

FDA Considering Traffic Light System for Healthy Foods

The FDA is meeting this week to consider a red, yellow, green system for labeling foods according to their degree of healthfulness. Here’s what the New York Times has to say about this. This is, of course, would be much like the Hannaford supermarket “follow the stars” program, about which several of you have strong feelings (see comments under entries for Supermarkets and Labels). In the early 1990s, Center for Science in the Public Interest did a fold-out pyramid designed to be put on school cafeteria tabletops. This listed foods on green (anytime), yellow (once in awhile), and red (seldom) sides of the pyramid. As is always the case with these kinds of approaches, the line between categories is a thin one and subject to much argument and manipulation. The FDA proposed something much simpler about five years ago: to put the entire number of calories on the front of packaged foods. What a good idea! It still hasn’t happened. Don’t hold your breath for this one either.

Sep 6 2007

Sugar Free?

The FDA is fed up with products claiming to be sugar free but not mentioning that they still have lots of calories. So the agency has decided not to let food companies get away with this anymore. Its latest “guidance” warns companies that if they say a product is “sugar-free,” it better be low in calories too. It’s great to see the FDA trying to do something about misleading health claims. Doesn’t this poor, beleaguered agency deserve a cheer for this one!

Aug 9 2007

Better Nutrition Labels?

Today’s question (see Vending Machines post): “I was looking at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bag of carrots today…If I read this label and compare it to packaged foods, the carrots really don’t look all that healthy. And yet I know they are. I have the same experience with apples and with other fruits and vegetables. What needs to be added and changed on the Nutrition Facts panel so that this makes more sense? Has anyone done a blind study of nutrition labels, having people compare them side-by-side and see which food they believe is more healthy without knowing what the food is, but from the label alone?”

Response: When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood. In What to Eat, I devote two chapters to explaining food labels, one for Nutrition Facts, and one for Ingredients. The FDA has a lengthy site to teach the public to understand food labels. I think the ingredient list tells you more about the real nutritional value of foods than the Facts part. My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality. Fresh and some frozen foods have only one ingredient: carrots, apples, broccoli, beans. The most important thing I’d change on food labels is the calories. The FDA proposed five years ago to require packages likely to be consumed by one person to display the total number of calories on the front panel, rather than listing calories per serving, which makes the calories appear lower than they are. What happened to that excellent proposal? It disappeared without a trace (the packaged food industry loathes the idea). It’s tricky to figure out what else an ideal food label would display. Any ideas? Forward them to the FDA (and post them here, of course).

Jul 30 2007

The Whole Grain Mess

Q.  Daniel from Ithaca writes: “I love whole grains as much as I love clear, honest labeling of foods. It is discouraging that even the WholeGrainsCouncil.org label on some foods is misleading. I just saw a loaf of Rubschlager Wheat Bread with the WGC symbol on it. It contains: Whole wheat, enriched wheat and 2 different sweeteners. I’m not sure how this is “whole”. What if foods with the Whole Grains Council or other proclamation that it is a “Whole Grain,” contained only Whole Grains with no “enriched flour” or added sugars?”

A.  The companies would probably go out of business; they wouldn’t have a clue how to make bread without all that stuff. The Whole Grains Council is a trade association/public relations agency that uses nutrition messages about the health benefits of whole grains to promote the products of its 160 member companies. One of its goals is “To promote whole grains through a positive message about their benefits, rather than by criticizing refined grains.”

The Council takes advantage of a gap in regulations; the FDA has not defined the meaning of “whole grains” on food labels but, instead, has produced Guidance for Industry. Examples:

Question: Does the term “whole grain” mean the same as “100 percent whole grain”? If a product is labeled as “whole wheat bagel” or “whole wheat pizza,” how much whole wheat should it contain? Answer: FDA has not defined any claims concerning the grain content of foods…We recommend that products labeled with “100 percent whole grain” not contain grain ingredients other than those the agency considers to be whole grains….We note that wheat flour should not be labeled as a whole grain flour because wheat flour is a synonym of flour…However, whole wheat flour (§ 137.200) should be considered a whole grain flour because it contains all the parts of the grain, i.e., the bran, endosperm, and germ….

Question: What types of label statements about whole grains are currently permitted to be made on food products? Answer: Manufacturers can make factual statements about whole grains on the label of their products, such as “10 grams of whole grains,” “½ ounce of whole grains,” (21 CFR 101.13(i)(3)) and “100% whole grain oatmeal” (as percentage labeling under 21 CFR 102.5(b)), provided that the statements are not false or misleading under section 403(a) of the Act and do not imply a particular level of the ingredient, i.e., “high” or “excellent source.”

Translation: The Whole Grains Council is doing a bit of an end run around the FDA. Is this a public service? You decide. Check out the Bread chapter in What to Eat and enjoy whole grains!

Jul 27 2007

Bored With Food Recalls? You Are Not Alone

On July 18 and again on July 21, the FDA announced a recall of canned chili and other foods, including pet foods, produced by Castleberry’s Food Company in Georgia because they made four people sick from botulism. Now the FDA and USDA have issued guidance to companies for proper handling of foods to prevent botulism, which can be fatal.

I don’t understand why people aren’t demonstrating in the streets for better oversight of food safety. Botulism used to be a big problem in low-acid canned foods until the FDA issued rules for dealing with them properly. If it’s still a problem, it’s either because companies are not following standard food safety procedures or because their systems failed and nobody noticed. We do not have a food safety system in this country that requires every food product made or imported into this country to be produced under standard food safety rules, monitored and enforced, from farm to table. I think we need them. Now. The endless “recalls” (in quotation marks because they are voluntary, unenforceable, and never able to get back more than a fraction of the products out there–they are still on shelves according to USA Today) may be endlessly boring but they ought to be inducing outrage–and lots of expressions of outrage to congressional representatives (easy to contact).

Jul 21 2007

FDA To Look at Nutrition Symbols on Food Packages

At last the FDA is going to take a look at those confusing symbols on food packages purporting to tell you how healthy the products must be. PepsiCo uses green “Smart Spots.” Kraft uses green “Sensible Solutions.” Just about every breakfast cereal sports symbols indicating that they are low in fat, lactose-free, high in fiber, containing whole grains, and so forth. These are unregulated health claims, although the companies would argue that they are just providing information. As the FDA politely puts the matter, “Although each symbol intends to indicate that the food product bearing the symbol is a healthful choice, each symbol program has different nutrient requirements.” Indeed. The FDA will hold hearings on this topic on September 10 and 11 to solicit information and comments. If you have thoughts on whether companies should be allowed to use these symbols or scoring systems, or whether the FDA needs to establish firm criteria for their use, now might be a good time to let the agency know.

Jul 20 2007

More Funding for FDA?

The Senate Agricultural Appropriations Committee has just announced that it will give the FDA an extra $48 million to fund food safety oversight. In federal terms, this is chump change but at least it’s an admission that the FDA is not adequately funded to meet its regulatory obligations. Why so little? Note that the money comes from agricultural appropriations, not health appropriations. This is the result of an historical anomaly; the FDA used to be part of the Department of Agriculture. When it was split off and eventually joined to the Department of Health and Human Services, its appropriations stayed with Agriculture. This, of course, is precisely the wrong place for it and helps explain why the FDA is so badly underfunded for what it has to do to protect the public from unsafe food. This is also part of the reason why the Government Accountability Office has been calling for creating a separately funded food safety agency that would take politics out of the food aspects of public health. If you think the present situation makes no sense, this is a good time to contact your congressional representatives.