Insights by Goldie
New food label changes — and PCC’s products

Sound Consumer | February 2006

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

On January 1, 2005, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rolled out two important new labeling programs. One requires clarifying the presence of certain allergens. The other requires labeling trans-fats in products. Both are positive steps, yet there are aspects of each program worth noting.

Allergen alerts
Food ingredient panels now must list all eight “major” food allergens — eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soybeans and wheat. Some allergens must be named by species or variety — as in “fish (salmon)” or “fish (trout),” and “tree-nuts (almond or walnut),” and so on.

Labels also must state clearly the common name of the allergen. Instead of “made with enriched flour,” they must say “enriched flour (wheat)” or “enriched wheat flour.” Alternatively, the label could state, “This product contains wheat.”

References to unusual words, such as “casein,” “caseinate” or “whey,” do not convey adequately to all shoppers that they’re milk derivatives. Now, the new labels must say “contains casein (milk protein)” or “whey (dairy).”

Many consumer advocates have urged that gluten (a protein in wheat and several other grains), though not technically an allergen, should be listed on products. Gluten is a serious food intolerance impairing the health of thousands if not detected. The FDA has held hearings and is working on the issue, but mandatory labeling seems unlikely. It set August 2006 for perhaps releasing voluntary label wording. We’ll keep you advised.

Trans-fats are troublesome
The total number of grams per serving of cholesterol-raising trans-fats, found primarily in hydrogenated vegetable oils, now must be listed on food nutrient panels — with some exceptions. The manufacturer is off the hook if the amount per serving is less than half a gram.

There’s also no requirement for listing trans-fats if the manufacturer otherwise is exempt from listing nutrient information, which usually applies to very small producers with sales less than a specific minimum annually.

Some trans-fats occur naturally in dairy and meats. But they’re formed primarily when highly refined vegetable oils are saturated with hydrogen, creating a new structure that blocks oxygen and resists rancidity.

Vegetable oils are cheap, since they come from highly subsidized agricultural commodities such as soy, corn and cotton. When hydrogenated, their new, artificial stability makes them irresistible to industrial food processors.

Trans-fats are in many baked and most fried foods, frozen desserts, imitation cream cheeses, coffee whiteners and other unhealthful food products.

The food industry loves stuff that lengthens product shelf life, but trans-fats don’t lengthen our lives. The National Academy of Sciences has stated that there is no safe level of these substances for humans.

It may seem reasonable to exempt trans-fat labeling for a half gram per serving. But consumers frequently ignore printed serving sizes, especially on snack foods and pastries. “You can’t eat just one!” reflects their addictive nature. A consumer — whether child or adult — habitually may eat whole bags of chips.

Restaurants and other food purveyors also are not required to disclose the trans-fat content in foods, unless they’re pre-packaged. Fast-food restaurants — and many white tablecloth types — are primary sources of trans-fats, especially from deep-frying and pastries.

Manufacturers have known since 2003 that January 1 of this year was the labeling deadline, a generous three-year window granted by the FDA to minimize business disruption. For an agency charged with protecting the public health, the FDA did not make the health of the consumer the priority, even though obesity is a national epidemic and heart disease a killer on the loose.

In the closing days of 2005, the FDA granted an unspecified number of extensions, stating it had been deluged with requests. Additionally, all inventory produced prior to 2006 still can be sold until gone — unlabeled — a sweet deal for products formulated to be shelf stable.

On the positive side, many manufacturers have met the challenge and successfully reformulated products that have no (or very limited) amounts of trans-fats.

Strange, then, that Oreo, the world’s most popular cookie, hasn’t been able to figure it out. Hmmm. I’ve observed that organic Newman-O’s, the Oreo knockoffs — are mmmmighty tasty, disappear when opened, and are 100 percent trans-fat free.

In fact, all products at PCC are trans-fat free. Do remember though, any manufacturer of any product at any time can change ingredients in products. So keep the good habit of reading labels — even at PCC!

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