Are The FDA’s New Definitions And Labeling Requirements Good For Us, Or Just Empty Calories?

By Diana R. H. Winters

[Crossposted from the Health Affairs Blog]

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently taken three steps toward providing consumers with more and better information about food products that the agency regulates. First, in response to several citizen petitions, the agency requested comments on the use of the term “natural” on food labeling. Second, the agency issued a statement in early May indicating that “in the near future” it planned to solicit comments reevaluating how nutrient content claims are regulated — including the term “healthy.” And third, the agency issued a final rule on an updated Nutrition Facts label, with which large companies must comply by July 2018.

With each of these actions the FDA is attempting to ensure that information provided to consumers by food manufacturers comports with the latest scientific understanding about food components. Indeed, the updated nutrition facts label will provide important information and potentially allow consumers to make more informed choices about what they eat. The agency, however, has set itself a far trickier task in defining words such as “natural” and “healthy.”

Act Naturally

In the past, the FDA has repeatedly declined to define the term “natural.” The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990 required the FDA to standardize definitions for nutrient content claims, like “fat free” or “high in fiber,” and to limit the use of health claims, like “heart healthy” (21 U.S.C. §§ 343(r)(1)(A), (B)). The word “natural,” however, does not fit into either of these categories.

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