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The quality and safety of foods are a worldwide concern and have been a societal issue since the beginning of civilization. In the United States, very complex laws and regulations have been developed to address food safety concerns. These laws and regulations are designed not only to insure that food is safe to eat, but also to insure that the product label provides information consumers need to make educated food-purchasing decisions.
Overview of Food Labeling
Food labels on products sold in the United States must have the product name (product identity statement); the manufacturer's name and address; the net contents in terms of weight, measure, or count; a list of ingredients; and, in most cases, a Nutrition Facts statement. To insure consistent presentation of information so consumers can easily compare food products, each component of the label is defined by regulations in terms of placement, terminology, and type size. Regulation of food labeling falls primarily under the jurisdiction of two federal agencies: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Both the FDA and the USDA publish regulations governing food labeling in the Federal Register (FR), which is published daily. Each year, all federal regulations are updated and compiled in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR); FDA labeling regulations appear in Title 21 and USDA regulations in Title 9 of the CFR.
The regulations define two categories of claims: nutrient content claims and health claims. Nutrient content claims are statements about the level of a nutrient in a food. Health claims, on the other hand, link the nutrient profile of a food to a health or disease condition. Food products made by very small businesses and foods with insignificant amounts of nutrients may be exempt from labeling regulations.
Product Identity Statement
Food labeling regulations require food products to be labeled prominently with a product identity statement to ensure consumers obtain important information about both the type and form of food contained in the package. The product identity statement should be a standard name or a common or usual name that is familiar to consumers. If it is marketed in various forms (e.g., whole, sliced, diced), the form of the food needs to be included. If it is an imitation food, the statement must include the word "imitation." Any information that is important to describe the food product must be included as part of Product Identity statement.
Net Quantity of Contents
The purpose of the "net quantity of contents" statement is to inform the consumer of the amount of product contained in the package. Regulations require specific wording, type size, and placement. Federal and state agencies monitor food products to ensure products contain the amount of the food stated on the food label.
A list of the ingredients must be included on all foods that have more than one ingredient. Ingredients must be listed in descending order of predominance and in defined terminology. Ingredients that are present in amounts of less than 2 percent of the product do not necessarily need to appear in order of predominance.
FDA's voluntary nutrition labeling program was initiated in 1976. Under this program, unless the product bore a nutrition claim or nutrients were added to the product, food manufacturers had the option of providing nutrition information on their products. On November 8, 1990, President George Bush signed into law the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA), requiring nutrition labeling for most foods (except meat and poultry) and outlining the appropriate use of nutrient content and health claims. Regulations implementing NLEA became effective January 6, 1993. Since then, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued over forty
NUTRIENTS AND DAILY VALUES USED FOR LABELING
major regulations for NLEA and many more minor regulations to revise existing regulations. As a result of these regulations, nutrition labeling is now virtually universal on packaged foods, the nutrition label format is easy to recognize, nutrient reference values have been standardized, nutrient claims have been defined, and disease-specific claims are now authorized.
Nutrition Facts Statement.
In order to ensure consistency of information, both FDA and USDA regulations are very explicit about the layout of the Nutrition Facts panel. The type of information that may be included, as well as the format and order, is detailed in the CFR.
Manufacturers are required to provide information on fourteen nutrients, but they may omit some of these if they are present at insignificant levels. Food manufacturers determine the nutrient content either by laboratory analyses on the product as packaged, or by calculation using standardized nutrient databases. Of the fourteen nutrients, five are considered core nutrients and must always be included on the Nutrition Facts panel, even if they are present at insignificant levels. In addition to mandatory nutrients, other nutrients may be required in some circumstances, or manufacturers may include them on a voluntary basis. The nonmandatory nutrients are defined by the regulations. All nutrients must appear in a specified order.
Percent Daily Value.
In addition to declaring the gram or milligram amounts for macronutrients (such as fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, and protein), the "Percent Daily Value" is also declared (with the exception of sugars and protein). All vitamins and minerals are presented as percentages of the Daily Value (based on a daily intake of 2,000 calories). Declaring nutrients as a percentage of the Daily Values provides a standard that is easy to use by individuals who are not familiar with the wide range of levels of different nutrients. For example, a food with 100 IU (international units) of Vitamin A may appear to contain a significant amount of this nutrient, but it is actually only 2 percent of the Daily Value (5,000 IU) for Vitamin A. Alternatively, a food with 6 grams of saturated fat may be thought of as low in Saturated Fat, when it actually contains 30 percent of the Daily Value (20 grams).
A serving size is the amount of food upon which the nutrient content is based. In order to ensure consistent serving sizes between similar products, NLEA defines serving size as the amount of food customarily eaten at one time. The serving size included on the Nutrition Facts panel may vary slightly between similar products, but it is based on the Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed Per Eating Occasion (RACC), as established by the FDA. The serving size is the household measure (e.g., cups, tablespoon, piece, slice, fraction, or container) closest to the RACC, followed by the metric equivalent. For a package of crackers where each cracker weighs 7 grams and the RACC is 15 grams, the serving size would read "2 crackers (14g)."
As a result of NLEA and other United States food labeling laws, health-conscious consumers are afforded a world of information on food labels. Food-labeling regulations provide the consistent standards consumers need to make food choices in an ever-changing food industry.