At The National Food Policy Conference in March 2018, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the regulatory agency hoped to enhance the country's nutritional efforts and boost healthy eating habits, particularly through better food labeling and informed consumer choice.
As The New Food Economy reported, the FDA's agenda included taking a more progressive position on packaging claims and food labels. One of the ways it would do this is by redefining and updating the term "healthy" for regulatory purposes. Up to now, the FDA had been notoriously hesitant to revise the vague description it had been employing since 1993, when the present regulations were put in place. Those original rules interpreted healthy only in terms of the amount of beneficial nutrients and fat content in a given product. Gottlieb hinted that a new food group-oriented approach might seek to emphasize dietary items such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy oils and low-fat dairy, instead of nutrients, and possibly use a special printed symbol or icon to call out products meeting FDA guidelines.
In April, Arcature CEO and Forbes contributor Larry Light went a step further on this issue, predicting that the FDA would also provide a definition for "natural." Right now, natural only means that there are no artificial or synthetic ingredients added to a food product. Numerous food manufacturers, wanting to play up the health benefit of avoiding artificial ingredients in the diet, labeled their products as natural to emphasize that point. However, that also created confusion in the marketplace because a food could be promoted as natural without necessarily complying with the requirements for a healthy designation. Two examples of this include Natural Cheetos, labeled as natural, and Campbell's Healthy Request Soup, which is not.
Public comments on 'natural' flood into FDA
Since 2016, during a years-long public comment period, the FDA received about 7,600 comments about whether to officially define natural, according to The New Food Economy. A panelist at the 2018 Food Policy Conference commented that the current definition "lacks teeth" because the food industry played a role in keeping things vague.
Another related issue raised at the conference was the matter of clean labeling, an unregulated and poorly defined food processing term that describes what's not in a product, rather than what it contains. Because of the confusion in the industry, totally ordinary, proven food additives like tocopherol (more commonly known as vitamin E) are not looked upon favorably. In response, Commissioner Gottlieb said the FDA may recommend going to language the public finds more understandable. For example, for certain ingredients like pyridoxine, it would be better to use "vitamin B6" in place of its chemical name.
Whichever direction the FDA takes in revising current definitions, it's a sure bet that there will be changes ahead for food marketing.
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