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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tag: food science

FDA Reviews Food Labels such as “Smart Choice”

In his September 24th talk, Michael Pollan talked about the way foods were labeled as healthful in ways that are misleading. The example he gave was the “Smart Choices” Check Mark on a box of Froot Loops, which are nearly 44% sugar.

The Los Angeles Times published an article today entitled, “FDA Clamps Down on Nutrition Labels on Food Packaging.” The article discusses nutritionists’ role in influencing these types of programs, “Smart Choices has emerged as a lightning rod among some nutritionists, who say its ratings are too lax and intended to give processed foods undeserved nutritional standing.” The article quotes NYU nutrition profession Marion Nestle, “I think Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that its check could go onto Froot Loops made it clear that the bar had to be set higher. [….] Good for the FDA.”

Who Decides What We Eat?

It may seem like a silly question, but the impression given In Defense of Food is that somehow outside groups like the Food Companies, Food Scientists or Nutritionists dictate what we eat. Apart from someone that is institutionalized, like in a prison, the rest of us of course decide what to buy and what to spend our money on. Accepting personal responsibility is avoided if we just blame someone else for our choices and problems. Unfortunately taking personal responsibility for our decisions (such as what we eat, how much we eat and how much activity we wish to do) is not a theme in this book. The Go Big Read program is a great opportunity to engage in this dialogue. Food scientists can help inform us (as we are all consumers of food) of what is the current “science” on a topic and they challenge us to question our assumptions about food.

Compared to even 50 years ago we now have an incredible variety of foods available and we also have made huge progress in improving food safety over this time. Of course having more food choices available can be confusing. An important point I wish to make here is that food companies do not control what consumers will buy. Companies, not just food companies but any company that wants to stay in business, spend a lot of money and time trying to understand consumers. They undertake market and consumer research in an effort to try to understand what is important to consumers and what trends are altering consumers purchasing decisions. Consumers are exposed to a wide range of influences including new fads and diets (in the past 10 years or so we have seen the emergence of various popular diets such as Atkins, South Beach Diet, Nutrisystem, Low Carb, etc). Nowadays, consumers are exposed to a lot more new ideas but also more fads and bad science through Cable TV, Internet, blogs, and the rise of networking sites like Facebook. Food companies respond to these (or emerging) consumer trends by trying to re-position (market) their existing products or introduce new products. There is a high risk (and cost) associated with developing or launching new products, and marketing is heavily involved because if the consumer does not want this product then the product will fail. The difficulties that food companies face in developing new products can be demonstrated by the failure within 6 months of a high percentage of new products that are launched. It is in this context that we should view the changes that we have seen in the types of foods in stores and how they are marketed over the past 20 years.

Another aspect to the impact that consumers have on the food industry can be seen by the reluctance of food companies to use new technologies unless there is consumer acceptance of that technology. Some technologies they know could greatly benefit the safety of foods for consumers. An example is irradiated foods which have been accepted as safe by groups such as World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In particular, it is a promising technology for the treatment of raw meat which is routinely the cause of food poisoning outbreaks. Because NASA is fearful of astronauts getting food poisioning while they are in space their foods are irradiated. As we discuss what’s in our food and how it is produced I hope we will realize that with any technology there is always a risk and a possible benefit. We just have to decide if any suggested risk is real and how significant, and then decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. We also need to understand that rejection of some new technology or science also means we “lose” the benefits that might have resulted from the utilization of that approach.

Professor John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Have All Our Foods Become Fake Foods?

In Michael Pollan’s book he suggests that we lost control of what is in our foods and now we have stores full of fake foods or food-like products. Hence he called the book in defense of (these real) foods.

As a food scientist I feel that some clarification of the actual situation is needed regarding his claim. In the US we have federal standards of identity (CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/SCRIPTs/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm) for a wide range of food products including categories such as: Milk and cream, Canned fruits, Bottled Water, Canned vegetables, Food dressings and flavorings, Chocolate products, Cheeses, Cereals and flours, Frozen desserts, Bakery products, etc. Fruits and vegetables are not included in these standards. Standards of identity define what a given food product is, its name, and the ingredients that must or may be used in the manufacture of that food. Food standards ensure that consumers get what they expect when they purchase certain food products. For example, to be called Ice Cream a product must be made from cream (derived from milk) and not some other fat source (e.g. vegetable oils). These food standards prescribe aspects such as the minimum amounts of certain ingredients; maximum fat and water contents and methods of processing or preparation. It is not correct of Pollan to suggest in his book that yogurt is now made with hydrogenated fat. The only type of fat that can be used in yogurt according to its standard (21 CFR Part 131.200) is milk fat. Pollan is correct in his comment that many ingredients are now added to some foods that were probably not in these products back in the 1980s. Much of these concern “nutrients” added to foods to improve its nutritional profile, e.g. cholesterol-lowering plant sterols which is an FDA approved claim (21 CFR 101.83). The FDA allows several types of claims to be made on foods, these are (a) health claims that meet significant scientific agreement (e.g. that plant sterols can reduce cholesterol claim), (b) qualified health claims (e.g., some limited evidence supporting the claim but not considered conclusive by the FDA) and (c) nutrient content claims (the usage of terms like lowfat, lean, etc. See the FDA website http://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/default.htm for more details.

The addition of nutrients and the inclusion of “claims” is of course largely driven by marketing (to increase sales). If you, as a consumer, do not want Omega-3s in a food product, then just don’t purchase it. Most of the new food products that are introduced each year fail and are withdrawn within a short period and of course, companies that want to stay in business, will launch another product to take its place. The important point is food products, that are regulated by a standard of identity (and most “traditional” foods have standards while novelties like Twinkies do not), still have to comply with the requirements of that standard even if the manufacturer wants to add some additional nutrient like Omega-3 to the product. I would recommend anyone interested in the ingredients or nutrients permitted in our foods to visit the FDA website (www.fda.gov). Anytime that the FDA considers changing a standard (or regulation) for a food, you as a consumer can post your comment on this website and this comment will be considered by FDA before any change is made. I just do not understand the view that adding a nutrient (e.g. vitamin D) to a traditional food like breakfast cereal somehow makes it an inferior quality product! I agree, however, that just because a food is called lowfat does not make it a very healthy product if it contained lots of calories from carbohydrate! I do not believe there is reasonable evidence to conclude that all our foods have become fake foods although many consumers are confused about the claims and labels on foods.

Although it is obviously not what Pollan believes in his personal manifesto, the comprehensive food standards we have in the US are envied (and often used as a reference) in many other part of the World.

Professor John A. Lucey
Department of Food Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison