Nutritional Labeling and FDA Oversight: Not What You’d Expect

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration provides guidelines for food labeling. Photo by the FDA

When you go to the grocery store, you pick up products that your family enjoys, or you may try new products that you think will fit comfortably into your diet.

Diabetics, however, and other food-sensitive consumers, must read nutrition labels carefully, to choose products that meet their medical needs.

People with diabetes rely on these nutrition labels to avoid dangerous blood sugar reactions, but what if the labels are inaccurate?

FDA’s Nutrition-Labeling Guidelines

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets forth guidelines to ensure that foods sold in the United States are safe, and labeled correctly.

According to the FDA, however, it’s the food companies that are responsible for properly labeling products with the correct nutrition – labels are not created by, verified by, or double-checked by the FDA.

Food manufacturers can determine the nutrients in a product by comparing ingredients to a database where averages for foods are listed, or by sending samples for lab testing.

Nutrition labels may not be accurate. Photo by Rorybowman

Food Labeling Guide: The Honor System

Decoded Science had to opportunity to interview FDA Spokesperson, Tamara Ward, who explained, “FDA does not tell companies how to generate their nutrition information.” She goes on to say that,FDA does not approve labels on food products.  It is the responsibility of the firm to assure that the nutrition information is accurate.  However, FDA does have a compliance program with a sampling plan.

In other words, private companies are on the honor system, when it comes to calculating and displaying nutritional information and carbohydrate counts on a product label. What happens when a company has the wrong nutritional information on their labels? According to Ward, the FDA sends them a warning letter, which “provides directions and a time frame for the company to inform FDA of its plans for correction. FDA then checks to ensure that the company’s corrections are adequate.”

Ward told Decoded Science that companies can analyze their products “however they want” when coming up with nutrition labeling information. This hands-off labeling oversight may lead to problems, as in the case of Deborah Krueger.

Health Hazards When Food is Labeled Inaccurately

Meet Deborah Krueger, from Portland, Oregon, who used to be a bakery manager and chef. Krueger is pre-diabetic and controls her blood sugars through diet alone, without the use of medications. On the 19th of May, 2012,  Krueger consumed two slices of  Julian Bakery’s SmartCarb #1 bread. The label for this low-carbohydrate product provides the following nutritional information:

Calories: 119
Total Fat: 1g
Total Carbohydrates: 13g
Dietary Fiber: 13g
Protein: 12g

In accordance with her blood-sugar testing plan, Krueger checked her blood sugar using her One-Touch Ultra glucometer at fasting, and then every 30 minutes after eating the bread. Her blood sugar rose to 234 within 60 minutes and peaked at 249 at 90 minutes. These are abnormally and dangerously high levels – according to the American Diabetes Association, healthy blood glucose levels are between 70-130 mg/dl before a meal and should not be any higher than 180 mg/dl after a meal.

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