FDA unveils Nutrition Innovation Strategy

Gottlieb promises action on ‘natural’ claims, hints at support for potassium salt petition

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: istockphoto-scanrail
Picture: istockphoto-scanrail
After two years of radio silence, during which some legal commentators – and several judges dealing with civil litigation on the issue – suspected it might die on the vine, the FDA has given its clearest indication yet that it will attempt to define ‘natural’ for the purposes of food labeling.

It is also considering a standard symbol or icon to denote ‘healthy’ on food labels, looking to re-assess standards of identity for some food products, and considering petitions asking it to allow more consumer-friendly names for certain substances on ingredient declarations.

In a speech delivered at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington DC today, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said: “Just like other claims made on products regulated by FDA, we believe the ‘natural’ claim must be true and based in science.

At the same time, we know that there are wide differences in beliefs regarding what criteria should apply for products termed ‘natural’… and some of those criteria aren’t based on public health concerns. We’ll have more to say on the issue soon.”

Potassium salt petition

He also hinted that the FDA may respond favorably to a petition filed by NuTek Food Science​ asking the agency to consider ‘potassium salt’ as an alternate name for potassium chloride on food labels to demystify the ingredient and help the industry achieve the dual goals of lowering sodium and increasing potassium intakes.

“The petitioner argued that some consumers associate the term ‘chloride’ with chlorine bleach and consequently avoid foods that have “potassium chloride” in the ingredient list," ​said Gottlieb.

"The petitioner urged FDA to consider how naming might encourage industry to replace some sodium chloride with potassium chloride, which could provide public health benefits… We’re actively considering this request.”

Scott Gottlieb-American Enterprise Institute

“I feel strongly that FDA can do more to assist the American public with creating healthier diets for themselves and their families. We have a real opportunity to reduce the burden of chronic disease through better nutrition. But this is something we can only tackle together, by making better choices easier.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb

Here are some other key elements in the FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy​:

Modernizing claims

  • Updating the criteria for the ‘healthy’ nutrient content claim​: “We’ve had discussions about whether there should be a standard icon or symbol for the word ‘healthy’ that everyone could use on food packages.”
  • “We’re interested in exploring ​[health] claims for products that offer food groups for which American diets typically fall short of recommendations. Examples include whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, and healthy oils.”
  • “The FDA also plans to streamline its process for reviewing health claims it receives from industry to enhance the efficiency of the review process.”

Modernizing ingredient labels

The FDA is considering whether simpler names for certain ingredients, for example, vitamin B6 (instead of pyridoxine) or vitamin B12 (instead of cyanocobalamin), or potassium salt (instead of potassium chloride)​, might help consumer understanding.

Modernizing standards of identity

Gottlieb also hinted that he was open to eliminating standards of identity​ that “may not be necessary​” and reassessing others “to maintain the basic nature and nutritional integrity of products while allowing industry flexibility for innovation.”

He didn’t reference the ongoing battle over labeling conventions in plant-based foods​ (which sometimes use dairy-derived terms such as ‘milk,’ ‘cheese’ and ‘yogurt’) but hinted that the FDA was open to discussions about naming and product descriptions, adding:

In addition to standards of identity, there are rules for naming and describing products. The FDA will issue a Request for Information to help guide us in developing an approach to these areas. Our priority is public health, and flexibility is key…”

He added: “We’ve been asked to modernize the standard of identity for yogurt to support the many innovations occurring in this food category…”

Implementing the Nutrition Facts label and menu labeling

  • The deadline for compliance with the new Nutrition Facts label is January 2020 for large firms and January 2021 for smaller ones.
  • Menu labeling comes info force on May 7.
  • “In addition, we’ve heard that consumers want actionable tips to make healthier choices,” ​said Gottlieb. “So we plan on providing information such as ‘simple swaps’ – like swapping out lemonade for a lower calorie seltzer with lemon.”

Reducing sodium

  • The FDA plans to release the updated short-term targets in 2019, as well as continuing the dialogue on longer-term reduction efforts.
  • There will be public meeting in summer 2018.

Get more details HERE​.  

Read the speech in FULL.

Marion Nestle: He didn't really promise much

Dr Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, told FoodNavigator-USA that she liked Dr Gottlieb's commitment to public health and prevention, but added: "He didn’t really promise much. 

"Mostly, he said 'FDA would consider,' meaning that the agency would put proposals out for public comment to begin its typical endless process.  The salt-reduction proposal is for voluntary action.  I suppose that’s the best the agency can do, but with respect to salt, nobody wants to go first.  I think it needs to be mandatory so there’s a level playing field for industry. 

"As for front-of-package labels, the proposal is for a positive message (“healthy”) when the evidence from Chile, for example, shows that warning labels are much more effective in guiding food choices and encouraging companies to reformulate."

Asked what she would like to see from the FDA, she added: "My (highly unrealistic) wish list includes getting the food label done, clear front-of-package labels, getting rid of health claims altogether, much greater oversight of dietary supplements, cleaning up GRAS,  clear warnings about salt and sugar on food packages and in restaurants, and some effort to promote smaller portion sizes..."

CSPI: Limit structure function claims

Margo Wootan

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) welcomed Dr Gottlieb's statements on the importance of healthy eating to lowering the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other illness, but expressed disappointment with the extended deadlines for compliance with the updated Nutrition Facts labels.

VP for Nutrition Margo G. Wootan also urged the FDA to:

  • "Limit structure-function claims, which companies use more than health claims: think 'enhances bone health' rather than 'prevents osteoporosis.' Such claims do not currently need to be backed by solid scientific evidence and can appear on foods that are high in salt, saturated fat, or added sugars.
  • Make sure that 'healthy' claims do not appear on foods that contain only small amounts of fruits, vegetables, or whole grains, or on foods that are high in problem nutrients, like sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat.  Including nuts doesn’t make a candy bar healthy.
  • Consider both consumer fraud and deception, as well as public health, in updating standards of identity for foods."

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Marion Nestle should be the head of the FDA

Posted by jane margolis,

Thank god for Marion Nestle and her clear headedness. There shouldn't be any health/structure function claims on food at all. It makes nutrition all so confusing for everyone. Natural shouldn't be put on anything as well.

As for potassium salt, maybe the cure is a little more science education for children.

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