Food Label Claims

Food marketing often involves the use of words that are calculated to persuade people to purchase without thinking: so-called "buzzwords" or catch words. Sometimes these words are persuasive because they are meaningful; sometimes they mean nothing and sometimes they mislead. The FDA has therefore created a complicated set of regulations concerning claims on food labels such as "light, "low", "fat-free" and so on. Generally these regulations are designed to make such claims mean that (as compared against a "market-leading" 'similar product) a food confers some sort of health benefit to a consumer, but, as with all regulatory schemes, there are loopholes and omissions that people should know. Further, the precise definitions of many food label terms may surprise you. We'll explore some of this in links to the right.

If you wish to scrutinize the FDA regulations themselves, here they are:

TITLE 21--FOOD AND DRUGS
CHAPTER I--FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
SUBCHAPTER B--FOOD FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
Subpart D--Specific Requirements for Nutrient Content Claims
Sec. 101.65 Implied nutrient content claims and related label statements.  
Having a law degree would probably be helpful :-)

A less confusing statement of FDA rules can be found at the following:

Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide


The problem with the information given by the FDA here is there is a little statement under the title that reads "Contains Nonbinding Recommendations". Worse yet, it isn't clear what 'recommendations' actually are nonbinding and which are mandatory.

So, if you REALLY want to understand food labeling you need to refer to the document  at the first link above and then check every federal regulation referenced therein. The problem is the each one of those regulations runs several thousand words and references yet other regulations. This is how lawyers make a living I think.

So what is an ordinary consumer to do?

Despair not. Despite all of the jargon and loopholes, some types of label claims actually DO mean something and we'll examine those now.




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