The need to display updated information in nutrition science was a large contributor to the new food labeling ruling. Reporting added sugars, changes in fiber declarations and modifications in what and how nutrients are reported are examples of that.
Historically, the nutrients required or permitted were Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron. The new label will now list potassium, calcium, iron and Vitamin D; Vitamin A and Vitamin C will no longer be required but could be included on a voluntary basis. Vitamin A and Vitamin C deficiencies are rare today, while potassium and Vitamin D levels are more likely to be inadequate.
Why Vitamin D?
Of particular interest, the prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency appears to be somewhat sudden and rampant. Over the past decade, the percentage of the American population to test adequate for vitamin D declined from roughly 50% to 25%. This means that 3/4 of the American population are found to be deficient in this essential nutrient. Health professionals have a few theories as to why this sudden decrease.
• Skin-cancer prevention campaigns which encourage sunscreen and long sleeves, blocking vitamin D production from the sun.
• Perhaps less and less people are outside between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm; the ideal window for synthesizing Vitamin D. Most would be inside working, and not outside for at least 15-20 minutes with their head, neck and arms exposed to sunlight.
• They also blame possible faulty testing.
Either way, most agree that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a unique nutrient - it functions as a hormone, helping all body cells to communicate properly. As such, the health effects of vitamin D are varied and include:
• The softening and weakening of bones.
• One contributing factor to depression.
• It’s been found to play a role in heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
• It can also effect an individual’s immunity and has been linked to some autoimmune diseases.
It’s quite possible that current research has only scratched the surface of the functions of Vitamin D and possible adverse effects of deficiency.
It’s a fairly easy and routine blood test and levels should be tested prior to supplementation. Proper dosage for deficiencies are based on current levels and are aimed to restore the nutrient to the ideal range without overdoing it, which is quite possible since Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and is stored easily by the body and not eliminated in the urine like water soluble vitamins (such as B vitamins or Vitamin C).
Where does Vitamin D come from?
There are three ways we get vitamin D:
• The body makes Vitamin D through sunlight which is the primary way we keep adequate blood levels. Just 15-20 minutes in the sun will make the equivalent of 20,000 IU taken orally.
• We can also get it through supplementation, but the body will need to convert supplements to the active form called “calcitriol”.
• A small amount may come from food. However, food sources of Vitamin D are limited and include fortified dairy products, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified non-dairy products (fortified almond milk or soy milk, for example), salmon, mackerel, tuna and egg yolks. Again, the type of vitamin D in food or fortified products will need to be converted to the active form.
Food labeling controversy
This has led many to question if Vitamin D really belongs on the nutrition facts label. Many health professionals feel it could lead consumers to believe that food is an adequate source of
Vitamin D when what they really need is more sun. Dr. Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of “Food Politics” has stated: “Vitamin D is not a vitamin; it is a hormone synthesized by the action of sunlight on skin. For this reason alone, it does not belong on the food label.” (1)
However, Vitamin D researcher Michael Holick, MD, PhD at Boston University Medical Center disagrees. While he recognizes the effectiveness of the sun, he also acknowledges the efficacy of Vitamin D supplementation and food fortification without the side effects of UV sun exposure. (1)
The effectiveness of food fortification on Vitamin D status is well documented, the best example being the milk fortification program implemented in the United States in the 1930s to combat rickets (softening and weakening of bones in children), which was then a major public health problem. Since then, almost all of the U.S. milk supply is voluntarily fortified with Vitamin D and fortified prodcuts are the biggest food contributor of the vitamin to the American diet. (2)
The bottom line
While it might be met with controversy, Vitamin D reporting will be required on the new food label. We at RL Foods can help food companies calculate and display the new changes to the nutrition facts label as well as any accompanying nutrient content claims on the front of the package.
On July 23, 2015, The House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, or the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, voting 275-150 in favor of the bill. Among a number of other stipulations, the bill will require federal standards for labeling food products with GMO-based ingredients and preempt any existing state laws to that effect. After facing initial resistance on both sides of the aisle, the bill slowly curried significant bipartisan support, reflected clearly in the margin of victory. Now the legislation travels to the Senate, where resistance is expected to be significantly stronger. Should it pass the top level of the Congress, the government will eschew the presently-active state laws on GMO food labeling for a voluntary labeling program overseen at the Federal level.
The Organic Food Industry and “Right to Know”
Perhaps no singular entity is more in support of tightened state and federal regulation than the organic foods industry, which pins much of its popularity to the growing public stigma towards GMO-derivatives and the processed food industry. Public supporters champion the issue as a “Right to Know” imperative for public health, and voters in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have already passed laws of their own to that effect, with Massachusetts close behind.
Should the bill pass the Senate, it will render these existing laws null and void.
“Today’s vote to deny Americans the right to know what’s in their food and how it’s grown was a foregone conclusion,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “This House was bought and paid for by corporate interests,” Faber added in his prepared statement.
Skeptics in and out of the Senate
Many in the popular press have already posited doubts to the veracity of GMO-based public health concerns, joining the scientific community in underscoring the lack of a concrete basis for isolating genetic modification as a growing method that warrants specific labeling. H.R. 1599 is specifically focused on preempting a potentially-nightmarish patchwork of state-based GMO-labeling laws, one that would almost certainly prove exceedingly costly and difficult for food manufacturers to effectively navigate. The real question centers upon what, if any, regulations the federal government would enact of its own to replace the state-level legislation. As it stands, if the legislation were to pass, it would simply codify federal policy for GMO labeling, which currently resorts to largely ambiguous language, demanding labeling only for “...genetically-engineered products that are materially different from their conventional counterparts in terms of functional, nutritional, or compositional characteristics.”
The FDA issued a draft guidance document to clarify the administration’s policy on the declaration of small and trace amounts of nutrients on manufacturers’ nutrition labels. Released as a notice in Federal Register, the draft guidance, when finalized, will “...explain to manufacturers of conventional foods and dietary supplements [the FDA’s] policy on determining the amount to declare on the nutrition label for certain nutrients and dietary ingredients that are present in a small amount.”
Issuing the draft guidance was determined necessary by the emergence of a potential conflict of interest between specific stipulations of the Code of Federal Relations (CFR). In the agency’s own words, “...declaring small amounts of nutrients and dietary ingredients in the nutrition labeling may result in a conflict between 21 CFR 101.9(c)(1) through (8) and 21 CFR 101.9(g)(4)(ii) and 21 CFR 101.9(g)(5). In such cases, we are recommending manufacturers declare nutrients and dietary ingredients in accordance with Sec. 101.9(c)(1) through (8).”
The FDA’s announcement will render food labels with declarations of nutritional content “misbranded” should they fall outside a standard deviation of 20% from the suggested amount of a given nutrient or caloric metric. In other words, a nutrition label claiming 8 grams of saturated fat per serving but in fact featuring 10 grams would be “misbranded.” Likewise, a product that claims to feature 50% of one’s daily recommended value (DRV) of Vitamin A that actually offers only 39% of one’s DRV would be subject to departmental recourse.
The draft guidance document is mostly directed at clarifying the nuances of American labeling laws for food manufacturers and purveyors. In the words of the bureau, “the draft guidance represents the current thinking of FDA on our policy on declaring small amounts of nutrients and dietary ingredients on nutrition labels. It does not establish any rights for any person and is not binding on FDA or the public.” Furthermore, the FDA is accepting public comments on the draft guidance up until September 28, 2015.
Amidst allegations of rampant, deliberate overcharging stemming from mislabeling on prepared foods products, Whole Foods Market took to the offensive against New York’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), claiming that the bureau's inspectors “have not provided evidence to back up their demands nor have they requested any additional information from us, but instead have taken this to the media to coerce us."
First reported in the New York Daily News, the Department’s claims drew regional (and ultimately national) attention after commissioner Julia Menin suggested that investigators within her department had potentially uncovered food labels featuring “the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers."
In documents made available to the public following its initial investigation, the DCA allegedly tested 80 different package types and found they all featured mislabeled weights, adding that 89 percent of the tested packages were incongruous with federal statutes for the maximum amount "that an individual package can deviate from the actual weight." Commissioner Menin continued, “"the overcharges were especially prevalent in packages that had been labeled with exactly the same weight when it would be practically impossible for all of the packages to weigh the same amount. These products included nuts and other snack products (flavored almonds, pecan panko and corn nuts), berries, vegetables, and seafood."
It remains unclear what effect the discovery may have had on consumer confidence in the company, as Whole Foods Markets’ stock continued to trade at $40.35/share in the days following the announcement (a fairly negligible drop of 0.86% in value entering the week). NBC’s widely-popular financial analyst Jim Cramer, of “Mad Money,” recently argued that the company’s largest basis for steady revenue was their prepared foods department, which provided restaurant-grade food at grocery-store prices. It would stand to reason that the latest allegations would undermine the very bedrock of that revenue stream.
Falsely labeling a prepared-foods package in New York State carries an initial fine of up to $950 with supplemental fines as high as $1,700 for each additional infraction. Given the volume of charges against them, Whole Foods Market could be facing a significant payout to New York State.
The Food and Drug Administration provides universal guidelines as to the methodology of scaling and advertising food weights, to wit: “Only the quantity of food in the container or package is stated in the net quantity statement. Do not include the weight of the container, or wrappers and packing materials. To determine the net weight, subtract the average weight of the empty container, lid and any wrappers and packing materials from the average weight of the container when filled with food.”
Fair and proper measuring of foods sold to consumers is of immense importance. In violating the FDA’s standards for presentation of food labels, food manufacturers and retailers fail to uphold their end of a vital relationship in the United States: that between consumers and commerce.