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Published May 08, 2014, 09:23 AM

FDA considers nutrition labels

When Amelia Vandarious goes grocery shopping at the Mississippi Market on West 7th St. in St. Paul, she spends a lot of time scouring labels for nutrition and ingredient information.

By: Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio News

When Amelia Vandarious goes grocery shopping at the Mississippi Market on West 7th St. in St. Paul, she spends a lot of time scouring labels for nutrition and ingredient information.

“I drive my husband crazy because it takes me forever to grocery shopping,” she says.

What does she look for?

“Salt content. If there’s any hydrogenated corn oils or any hydrogenated anything,” she says. “Trans fats. If I can figure out anything about the GMOs. The nutrition label is a little bit helpful. But you really have to research on your own.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration aims to help consumers like Vandarious know more about the contents of prepared foods by requiring that producers include more information on the nutrition label found on food packaging.

That’s prompted a lively debate over the new labeling requirements, which that could affect the fortunes of big Minnesota employers, including General Mills, Hormel Foods, Michael Foods and the Schwan Food Co.

Among other things, the updated label would include information on, potassium, Vitamin D and how much sugar is added during production. Nutrition values would also be adjusted to reflect the larger portions people typically eat and drink today.

The current label hasn’t changed much in 20 years, other than the 2006 requirement to note trans fats.

FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, who announced the proposed changes in March, says officials realize the label alone “won’t magically change how America eats.”

“But we hope that once consumers decide to implement changes in their diet, it will provide them with the tools to be successful,” Hamburg says.

Once the rules are finalized food companies could have up to two years to comply.

The FDA’s proposed changes focus on the nutrition label. They do not address ingredient lists, allergen warnings or the use of terms like “natural.” Those are separate subjects.

For now, there’s disagreement among industry and consumer groups about what should be on the new labels.

Some consumer advocates argue new labels should be much more informative than the FDA has proposed.

Laura MacCleery, chief regulatory affairs attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says her organization’s recommendations will include calls to note how much whole grain and caffeine are in foods. She says the FDA should mandate one proposed version of the label, a format that identifies ingredients to be avoided or consumed to reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

“The format tells consumers what nutrients on the label they should avoid, like saturated fat and added sugars, which nutrients they should get enough of, like beneficial carbohydrates,” she says.

But MacCleery’s position is just one of many.

The FDA has already had more than 2,500 consumer and industry comments of the proposed changes.

The FDA had planned to take comments on the label changes only until early June. But many industry groups are seeking a 90-day extension of the comment period to study the impact on manufacturers. Cranberry growers, for example, have lamented that quantifying added sugars would punish cranberries for their “unpalatable natural state.”

Healthier options

Minnesota food companies, such as General Mills, Hormel, Schwan’s and Michael Foods, have hundreds of product nutrition labels to revise.

So far, no comments from Minnesota firms have shown up on the FDA’s website. But they certainly won’t stay quiet.

“We are looking forward to sharing our perspective on the proposed changes soon,” says Maha Tahiri, chief health and wellness officer for General Mills.

Since 2005, the food industry giant says it has improved the health profile of products that account for nearly three-quarters of its U.S. sales. The changes include increased protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals or reduced calories, sodium, sugar and fat.

“We have found that consumers are increasingly seeking healthier options, as long taste is not compromised,” Tahiri says.

Tahiri says gradual improvements make the most sense, since too great a change in ingredients in a short time can alter a product’s taste so much that people stop eating it. She said the company refers to the slow changes as “stealth health.”

Like some 50 food and grocery companies, General Mills highlights nutrition information on the front of many of its products, providing quick reads on fat, salt and ingredients. That goes beyond FDA requirements. But critics complain companies can cherry pick nutrition information and mislead consumers about the healthiness of a food.

Consumer interest in healthy ingredients is soaring, says Hank Cardello, director of obesity initiatives for the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning research group.

“There is a clamoring for healthier products,” Cardello says. “It’s very clear to us that the growth in the industry over the last five years has predominately come from these better-for-you and lower calorie products.”

Regardless of the new labels, Cardello says companies are not acting in their shareholders’ interests if they’re not developing and promoting healthier foods.

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