Ingredient Labeling, Regulatory Risk & Consumer Confidence

Originally Published: November 2, 2018
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
An image of legal books lining a shelf, fronted by a gavel, a book titled the law and the scales of justice on top of two law books.

March 27, 2018 — In dealing with clean food and beverage package labels, “we are really dealing with consumer perceptions,” said Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN, President of Concept Nutrition, Inc. This spells opportunity, she proposed in her presentation “Ingredient Labeling Considers Regulatory Risk in Capturing Consumer Confidence,”  at the 2018 Clean Label Conference.

2018 CLC/Lauren Swann - Ingredient Labeling, Regulatory Risk & Consumer Confidence

When fruit and vegetable juice is used as a color additive in food, it may be declared as “Artificial Color,” “Artificial Color Added” or “Color Added;” or by an equally informative term that makes clear that a color additive has been used in the food, such as “Colored with Fruit Juice” or “Vegetable Juice Color.”

There is no (U.S.) government designation for what constitutes a “clean” ingredient-labeled food or beverage, but there are regulations that determine how ingredients can be listed on a package. According to the FDA, ingredient listings must use: only official or acceptable names; no trademark or brand names; no “fanciful” names; no descriptors, such as “pure,” “non-GMO,” “real,” etc.; and no geographic names, unless they are part of the common name. However, botanical origin names (e.g., cane sugar) are acceptable. And, some approved designations allow a modicum of variability (e.g., skim milk, nonfat milk). The USDA guidelines for meat and poultry products under its purview differ from those of the FDA, for example, allowing spices to be listed as “flavor,” “flavorings” or “natural flavorings.”

Consumers want ingredient label transparency and equate “healthy” with natural and minimally processed foods. However, although some ingredient label regulations apply to typically clean label products (e.g., organic), progress on other initiatives, such as requests for FDA to define “all-natural” claims, have [so far been] dead in the water, says Swann. “Organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, lactose-free, allergen-free products, and even kosher and halal certification can also be associated with clean labels,” she adds.

Whereas the Federal Trade Commission’s authority over advertising tends to be more reactionary, complying with established government labeling regulations can be complex and challenging. For example, although the term “fresh” is defined by Federal regulation, pasteurized milk can be optionally claimed as “fresh,” but pasteurized fruit juices cannot.

Conversely, although non-governmentally defined terms, such as “authentic, real and simple,” can be found on product packages, caution is warranted. Vague, ill-defined terms shroud clean labels in legal ambiguities that can invite lawsuits, warned Swann.
Larger companies may sometimes have different individuals or departments responsible for developing and reviewing specific parts of food package labels. However, “I advise companies to assign one individual or department to be responsible for label review as a whole rather than in parts, to catch potential inconsistencies,” emphasized Swann, “because mandated ingredient lists must support any relevant claims.”

“I research terms very carefully to identify issues that may be risky for clients,” said Swann, beginning with the Standards of Identity (SOI) in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). These, too, can appear inconsistent or confusing. But, even if there aren’t SOIs specific to a product’s formula, there are still commonly established names from long-standing industry marketplace practices that should be followed, because they represent the type of product composition that the consumer has come to reasonably expect for items bearing that name.

One can get creative to a point, such as listing a preservative’s role “to protect color,” but colors themselves can be highly problematic for “clean” labeling. The FDA views any attempt to use ingredients to affect a product’s final color as artificial.

“Let’s say that you make lemonade and add a tiny drop of cherry juice to turn it pink, yet a cherry taste is not identifiable in the finished product,” explains Swann. The cherry juice may be natural, but the FDA would consider the lemonade to have been artificially colored, because its sole function is color, and the cherry juice must be identified as “color” in the ingredient list, added Swann.

According to the FDA, incidental additives, ingredients introduced by another ingredient or non-functional processing aids can be omitted, unless they are allergenic or contribute significant nutrient value. The USDA, however, is “very fussy about ‘incidental additives’ in meat products,” considering amount and nutrient contributions along with end-product functionality for compliant label approval.

Ultimately, however, it is the consumers that decide what is legitimate. Thanks to the Internet, consumers now have ways of uncovering details about ingredients and share their findings with peers, noted Swann.

“Different consumer demographic segments look for different ingredients,” said Swann. Whereas Baby Boomers try to avoid ingredients viewed as detrimental to aging-related health issues, Millennials have other concerns. This suggests opportunities for more demographic-specific ingredient listings, Swann added.

“We know that ingredient names definitely influence purchase decisions. [One study] found that 73% of consumers polled were willing to pay a high price for products made with ingredients they recognize and trust,” said Swann. They also like to know what those ingredients do in the product. “The bottom line is, whenever you put an ingredient into a food or beverage product, consumers today expect each ingredient to provide some specific value to them,” concluded Swann.

“Ingredient Labeling Considers Regulatory Risk in Capturing Consumer Confidence,” Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN, President of Concept Nutrition, Inc.

This presentation was given at the 2018 Clean Label Conference. Download a complimentary copy of the original 2018 PowerPoint Presentation on Ingredient Labeling and Regulatory Risk.