Magazine article FDA Consumer

Selling Nutrition: Should Food Packages Carry Health Messages?

Magazine article FDA Consumer

Selling Nutrition: Should Food Packages Carry Health Messages?

Article excerpt

Selling Nutrition: Should Food Packages Carry Health Messages?

Food products could carry health messages on their labels, so long as the information is true and certain criteria are met, under a recent proposal by the Food and Drug Administration.

In proposing the new policy in the Federal Register last Aug. 4, FDA said it "believes that it is important to consider ways to improve the public's understanding about the health benefits that can result from adhering to a sound and nutritious diet. . . . The rapid growth of scientific and public interest in nutrition argues for recognition and dissemination of such new knowledge, and food labels offer one appropriate vehicle for this dissemination.'

FDA cited three principal factors for proposing the change in its present policy:

The growing amount of scientific evidence suggesting that there is a link between diet and various illnesses, such as cancer and coronary heart disease, and that people can reduce their risk of those diseases by eating more or less of various types of foods.

Consumers' interest in learning more about how to improve their diets, avoid diet-related illnesses, and generally stay healthier.

Food industry interest in marketing and promoting products for their potential health benefits.


As the agency noted, consumers have become "increasingly conscious of the relationship between diet and health,' and food manufacturers have been interested in finding ways to convey to consumers "how specific foods may be used to improve one's diet, thereby promoting good health.'

For years, FDA used its legal authority--and the courts--to prohibit the food industry from making specific health claims on the labels of food products, especially those it felt were fraudulent, misleading, unproven, and potentially hazardous to public health. The agency took the position that foods with health claims were either misbranded under the law or that the claims made on labels amounted to drug claims whose safety and effectiveness had to be demonstrated.

FDA's basic authority stems from provisions of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act and various regulations that spell out how industry must present nutrition information on food labels and rule out certain types of claims.

"While effectively protecting the public from fraudulent, unsubstantiated, and potentially dangerous claims, the law, regulations, and past legal precedent in this area have also had the effect of generally discouraging use of any health-related messages on food labeling,' the agency said in its August proposal.


The proposal lists four criteria to determine the "propriety of health-related claims and information.' The criteria, it stressed, would not change the agency's basic interpretation of the requirements of the FDC Act or the legal precedent established from earlier court cases involving false or misleading claims. The criteria are:

The health messages or claims made on food labels must be truthful and not misleading to consumers, and they "should not imply that a particular food [can] be used as part of a drug-like treatment or therapy-oriented approach to health care.' Further, the information "must not overemphasize or distort the role of a food' in promoting good health.

The claims must be supported by "valid, reliable, publicly available scientific evidence . . . and should conform to generally recognized medical and nutritional principles' for a sound, total diet. The "weight of scientific evidence' must support a health claim to ensure that the "substance of the message has achieved sufficient [scientific] recognition to be appropriate and nonmisleading.'

The claims must indicate clearly that good nutrition is the result of the total diet and not a result of eating a specific food or foods. …

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