Nutrition Claims: Changes and Opportunities
by Peggy Biltz and Lori Hoolihan
Second only to taste, nutrition is a primary factor when consumers make food selections. The nutritional labeling of food is an important tool to help consumers learn about a product, the nutrients it contains and any purported health benefits. Label claims provide consumers with point-of-purchase information and have shown to significantly impact purchasing and consumption behaviors.
In accordance with new research, the Food and Drug Administration recently mandated a number of changes to product label claims that will impact the dairy industry:
• Three types of label claims have traditionally been allowed on products: health claims, structure-function claims and nutrient-content claims. In September 2003, the FDA loosened up its criteria for health claims on labels by allowing “qualified” health claims. Such claims must be accompanied by a disclaimer so as not to mislead the consumer. To be approved, they must undergo FDA review through an expedited petition of no longer than 270 days.
• Beginning January 1, 2006, a product’s trans fat content must be listed directly under saturated fat on the Nutrition Facts panel. This decision was based on evidence that consumption of trans fats can increase levels of low-density lipoproteins, or “bad” cholesterol. Products that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, such as most dairy products, will show a level of zero on their labels. One type of trans fat found in dairy — conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) — is specifically excluded from the labeling requirement due to research suggesting CLA may have some health benefits.
• Also beginning January 1, allergens must be labeled using their common names. The major food allergens identified are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts (almonds, pecans and walnuts), wheat, peanuts and soybeans. Foods with ingredients that contain protein from any of these sources must also be labeled.  
In March 2004, the FDA released a report titled “Calories Count” that outlines recommendations to the food industry to help Americans fight obesity. Although no immediate action must be taken since the next date for any mandated FDA food labeling changes is January 1, 2008, the food industry should be aware of some of the recommendations:
• Increase the font size of the “Calories” line in the Nutrition Facts panel and add a “Daily Value” percentage for total calories.
• Require manufacturers to label as a single serving those products in which the entire package could “reasonably be consumed in one eating occasion.”
• Define nutrient content claims related to carbohydrate content of foods (e.g. “net,” “low” and “reduced” carbohydrate as well as “carb-free” claims).
• Urge the restaurant industry to launch a nationwide point-of-sale campaign to provide nutrition information on menu items.
The industry should also be cognizant of the increasing scrutiny that food products with added sugars are receiving. There will likely be stricter regulations dictating foods allowed in schools and other settings based on sugar content as a means to control calorie intake. It may become necessary to reformulate certain products to meet such standards for placement in these settings.
There is untapped potential for the dairy industry to make use of label claims to help educate the consumer of the numerous health benefits of dairy when they are purchasing a product. With research verifying the traditional benefits and uncovering novel benefits of dairy foods — as well as the FDA now allowing for qualified health claims — there has never been a better time for the dairy industry to optimize their use of claims on product labels.
Peggy Biltz is chief executive officer of the Dairy Council of California. Lori Hoolihan, Ph.D., R.D., is the council’s nutrition research specialist.