Low-Carb Semantics

In the rush to get Atkins-friendly versions of their products to market, food companies are risking FDA reprimands for labeling law infractions.

Mayfield Dairy Farms reduced the carb count to three in its Less Carbs ice cream to appeal to carbohydratre-conscious consumers and diabetics, but the use of relative terms in package descriptions can invite a reprimand from the FDA, label consultants warn.
JUST AS THE TERRY SOUTHERN/STANLEY KUBRICK CLASSIC "Dr. Strangelove" was subtitled, "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb," the Dr. Atkins diet can be thought of as, "How I stopped hating protein and learned to love reduced carbs."

The popularity of the Atkins diet has been a boon to beef producers but a disaster for bakers, orange juice makers and processors of carbohydrate-heavy foods. Instead of cursing the Atkins name and accepting a sales swoon, many companies are fighting back with reduced-carb versions of their mainstream products. The success of Michelob Ultra spawned a host of similar beers, and Sara Lee Bakery's new Delightful Breads are among a spate of lower-carb grain products staking out shelf space. Lactose boosts the carb index of a glass of milk; dairy processors are responding with lactose-reduced milk (HP Hood and Southwest Dairy) and ice cream like Mayfield Dairy Farms' Less Carbs that rely on artificial sweeteners.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers have created package labels that place their products at odds with 21 CFR 101.13, the section of the food code that regulates label language. And while it's "highly unlikely" the FDA would order a recall of offending packages, manufacturers may find themselves on the receiving end of an FDA warning letter, cautions Karen Duester, president of Food Consulting Co. "They might find that they have a lot of label inventory that they no longer can use."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently petitioned FDA, seeking new regulations for carbohydrate-related nutritional claims such as "carbohydrate free," "low carbohydrate" and "excellent source of carbohydrates." Even if FDA accepts public comments on the proposal, new rules are probably years away, Duester cautions. In the meantime, package language needs to stick to the facts and avoid any qualitative language.

"Marketing folks have tried very hard to comply with labeling regulations with phrases such as, ‘for a low-carb diet' or ‘suitable for a low-carb lifestyle,'" says Duester. Unfortunately, nutritional-content standards for carbs have not been defined, so "the simplest, most direct phrase, ‘low carb,' is not allowed on food labels," she says. Neither are "free," "reduced," "less," "only" and other terms that are considered arbitrary.

For more information:

Karen Duester, Food Consulting Co.,

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