Throughout history, clean living has made its way into mainstream culture. Usually spurred by public health concerns, the concept of “clean living" often brings renewed consumer scrutiny.
In an age of over-processed, convenience-oriented food offerings, consumers wanting healthier options are looking for answers in the fine print of their food and supplement purchases. Transparency is the key word as food and dietary supplement manufacturers look for ways to provide consumers with a clearer picture of what is in their products.
And how do consumers quickly access and make individual product decisions? The product label. While consumers are pressing for more natural products and looking for labeling that suggests fewer additives and/or more natural ingredients, FDA regulations aren’t often keeping the pace with their demands. For instance, labels must use the standard common name for ingredients [CFR 101.36 (b)(2)(ii)], but the common name may be meaningless to the average consumer.
An ingredient such as pyridoxal-5-phosphate doesn’t resonate with consumers, but it is actually just a form of vitamin B6. On the other side of the coin, some common names may sound like synthetic ingredients, such as hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, which is simply a purified plant fiber.
In addition, the recent labeling trend has revolved around the “all natural" claim, and consumers may predominantly base their buying decisions on this information. However, the problem is that FDA does not regulate these claims beyond limiting them to being “truthful and not misleading."
Unfortunately for consumers, FDA has not actually defined “natural" or processes that can be considered “natural production," so the truthfulness of claims is left to the interpretation of field agents. Field action indicates any food product that has production steps beyond harvesting, cleaning and cooking would not be considered “all natural" in the eyes of FDA. In addition no ingredient could be added to the food, even natural ones. Basically, only whole unprocessed meat, fruits, vegetables and grains would qualify. Based on this approach, raw chicken with added salt would probably not qualify for “all natural" claims.
Lastly, as the genetically modified organism (GMO) topic continues to gain mainstream momentum, FDA will have to formally define what is considered GMO, non-GMO or GMO-free, and provide clear requirements for labeling.
Currently, this is a difficult prospect, as most supply chains cannot accurately trace back upstream to conclusively identify ingredients. With this issue squarely in the public’s eye, some states are trying to fill the “regulatory gap" by proposing legislation related to GMO labeling. In 2014 alone, 25 states proposed 67 pieces of legislation.
Consumer education is a key component as new labeling regulations may inadvertently cause more confusion for the end user. At the end of the day, it’s the consumer that will be tasked with making an informed choice.
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Laura Willis is the director of quality assurance at the National Enzyme Co. (NEC), a manufacturer of enzyme supplement finished dosage forms in the United States.