Labels to spill the food facts

July 14, 1993|By Ginger Munsch Crichton | Ginger Munsch Crichton,Dallas Morning News Universal Press Syndicate

They're coming.

The new nutrition labels that could revolutionize the way Americans shop will start appearing on some foods this summer.

Consumers will notice that the labels not only have a different format from the ones they're used to, but also contain different nutrition information -- sometimes presented with new and unfamiliar terms.

As the year goes on, expect to see more and more new labels as manufacturers rush to redesign packaging by the federal deadline of May 1994 (July 1994 for processed meat and poultry).

Del Monte's approach to the new labels is typical of several major food companies.

"We're phasing in our conversion," said William Spain, vice president of corporate affairs for Del Monte, which makes canned fruits, vegetables, puddings and other products.

Most Del Monte foods are packed between May and October, and the company had already printed some of its '93 labels when the new regulations were issued earlier this year.

Mr. Spain said that about half of this year's labels will be in the new format.

"There are going to be old labels and new labels side by side," he said. "That's unavoidable. And just because you see an old label next to a new label, that doesn't mean that pack is an old pack."

Spokesmen for a number of other food manufacturers, including Nestle USA, Kraft, Nabisco, Campbell Soup Co. and General Mills, said their new labels will be phased in over the next year as nutrition analyses are finished and old packaging supplies are depleted.

The food labeling changes, required by Congress' Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, mandate detailed nutrition information on most processed foods.

About 40 percent of food firms will be exempt from the law because of their small size.

"They make up only a small percentage of foods sold in supermarkets and other retail places, well under 1 percent," said Brad Stone, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA, which along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the new food rules, estimates that 257,000 labels will have to be changed.

The FDA predicts that the changes will eventually spur competition among manufacturers to make a wider variety of healthful foods.

"Some products will be exposed as not being very nutritious, and [manufacturers] are going to be forced to look at their formulation and see what can be done," said Dr. Richard Williams Jr., chief of economics for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Even without calculating the impact of any product reformulation, the FDA estimates that if consumers change their buying and eating habits because of the new labels, more than 39,000 cases of cancer and heart disease will be prevented over the next 20 years.

Brochures explaining how to read the new labels should be in supermarkets soon.

The food labeling laws will be periodically revised as the FDA updates information. Already, consumer groups have voiced concerns about unregulated terms such as "thin" -- used on a number of new chip products -- that may be misinterpreted by some shoppers.

Some health claims allowed

Food labels may include health claims that the FDA has ruled are supported by substantial scientific evidence. Depending on the claim, foods must meet various standards (such as being low sodium, low fat or low cholesterol) before any health statement can be made.

The following links are allowed:

* Low sodium and a reduced risk of hypertension,

* Fruits and vegetables with fiber, vitamin A or vitamin C and a lower cancer risk,

* Fiber-containing fruits, vegetables and grain products and a lower risk of heart disease or cancer,

* Calcium and a lower osteoporosis risk,

* Low fat and a reduced cancer risk,

* Low saturated fat and cholesterol and a reduced risk of heart disease.

Typical wording: "Development of cancer depends on many factors. A diet low in total fat may reduce the risk of some cancers." Or: "Regular exercise and a healthy diet with enough calcium help teens and young adult white and Asian women maintain good bone health and may reduce their risk of osteoporosis later in life."

Defining the terms

Any claims about the nutrient content of foods must meet FDA or USDA definitions for specific terms.

* Free, Zero, No, Without: Less than 5 calories per serving; less than 0.5 grams of fat or saturated fat; less than 2 milligrams cholesterol; less than 5 milligrams sodium; less than 0.5 grams sugar.

* Low, Little, Few: No more than 40 calories per serving (120 calories per 100 grams for meals and main dishes); 3 grams or less total fat; 1 gram or less saturated fat; 20 milligrams or less cholesterol; 140 milligrams or less sodium; not defined for sugar.

* Light, Lite: Generally, has 50 percent less fat, 50 percent less sodium, or one-third fewer calories. Meals or main dishes must meet definition for "low calorie" or "low fat." Also may be used to describe physical characteristics of food if that's explained on label ("light in color").

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