LOOKING AT LABELS
"We need a new law with specific and mandatory labeling of all food ingredients entering the production of all processed foods and beverages," wrote NOHA Professional Advisory Board member Theron G. Randolph, MD, in 1986 (NOHA NEWS, Summer 1986). Since Congress passed the two Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Acts, in 1906 and 1938, the home production of meals from primary food sources, he said, "has all but ceased to exist." Instead, "attractively packaged and merchandised food mixtures . . . now dominate the food market. . . . The kitchens of some hospitals and other institutions where meals are served have degenerated into ‘warming-up stations’ for the offerings of commercial caterers. Should eaters in such establishments desire to know the ingredients of the conglomerations set in front of them, they do not even have the chance to see the label on the ‘mix’ from which the meal was prepared."
Among Dr. Randolph’s recommendations for a new labeling law were (1) the identification of food origins, for instance, sugar as being from either cane or beets, (2) the listing of pesticides and other additives on the labels, and (3) the disclosure of additives in food served by restaurants. Lest such ideas seem too utopian, consider the German Food Law of 1959, as described by Dr. Randolph. This "truly protective philosophy," he said, does not allow nonnutritive additions unless "expressly permitted in the official regulations." All chemicals added to food must be disclosed on labels. German restaurants that use colorings, flavorings, or other additives must "explain specifically by code number what the additives are and in which items on their menu." The law has had health effects "greater than the most radical reformers had dared to hope," he wrote; public pressure has induced many German caterers to switch to plain foods without additives. (As sometimes happens, a good law produces effective voluntary compliance.) It was also public pressure that brought about the new law in Germany; food adulteration scandals motivated consumer and women’s organizations to unite under the slogan "The Truth on the Label."
In the United States, Congress’s passage of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to announce, in 1991, proposals for new food-labeling regulations. Now is a good time to ask how much of what kind of truth will be on the proposed labels.
Termed "the most significant changes in food labeling in the last 50 years" by Bruce Silverglade, legislative director for the consumer-oriented Center for Science in the Public Interest,1 the proposed regulations would make nutrition information mandatory on processed foods that are "meaningful sources of nutrients; that is, on virtually all packaged foods."2 However, most spices would be excluded, as would small packages (generally those no larger than a package of Life Savers); restaurant food; and food produced by small businesses (those with food sales of less than $50,000 a year and total sales of less than $500,000 a year). As proposed, the new labels, which are voluntary (at least at first) for produce, fish, meat, and poultry, will provide more specific, accurate, and consistent information than labels have provided in the past. The FDA’s aim is for labels to be clearer, easier to understand, more honest, and more complete.
As summarized, the FDA’s proposals reflect mainstream nutrition’s concern with calories, cholesterol, sodium, calcium, sugar, fiber, and fat, with some of the currently grossly overstated health hype banned. The only health claims allowed would be those for calcium and osteoporosis; sodium and hypertension; fat and cardiovascular disease; and fat and cancer. Not allowed would be claims linking folic acid with neural tube defects; antioxidant vitamins with cancer; zinc with immune function in the elderly; and omega-3 fatty acids with heart disease. The FDA is reserving judgement on claims for fiber and heart disease, and fiber and cancer.
The proposals sound like an improvement, but how much should we rejoice? How much will the new labels help those with food allergies? How well do they fulfill Dr. Randolph’s hopes? Not enough, it would appear, though we won’t know exactly what will be on the labels until 1993, when the rule-making process finally winds down. The new labels will still have ingredient lists, but they may not tell us whether the sugar is from cane or beets, or let us know that "sweetose" is another name for corn. They will not tell us what pesticides have been used on supermarket food. Nor will we always know what additives the foods contain, though monosodium glutamate will be identified on more labels than in the past (still not on all labels, however, only on those in which MSG is present "in another food ingredient in a significant and functioning level as a flavor enhancer," according to an FDA spokesperson on the November 3 "60 Minutes" segment on MSG). And the FDA statements make no mention of any labeling requirements for restaurant or institutional food. In such places, we will continue eating blind.
Yet the FDA has proposed some changes that will help the concerned or allergic consumer:
Thus the FDA is moving slowly, very slowly, toward letting us know the sources of the ingredients in processed foods – something so important to people with food allergies. But the proposed new regulations have a long way to go to be truly productive.
1Marian Burros, "Eating Well," The New York Times, page B7, November 6, 1991.
2"Food Labeling Reform: A Progress Report," FDA Backgrounder: Current & Useful Information from the Food & Drug Administration, November, 1991.Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Winter 1992, pages 3-4.