Food and Agriculture

Food Trends: Mid-Calorie Foods

by Johanna Smith, UMN Law Student, MJLSTStaff

Thumbnail-Johanna-Smith.jpgLooking at the packaging on a food item can be very overwhelming. Not only does the product contain required nutritional information and an ingredients list, many products also contain health claims or statements on the front of the package to grab the customer’s attention. Common terms to see include organic, low-fat, high fiber, and low-carb. In “How Can Better Food Labels Contribute to True Choice?,” recently published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, J.C. Horvath discusses the evolution of the regulation of claims made on food packaging. In addition to regulatory pressure, the other major source of pressure that determines what shows up on food packaging is consumer preference.

A decade or so ago, the hot trend was to highlight items as being non-fat or low-fat. However, consumers quickly realized that eliminating all fat and calories eliminated the taste of the food that they liked and the popularity of these items declined. This set the stage for the successful marketing of mid-calorie foods. These foods have less fat and fewer calories than the original version of the food, but more than the typical diet food. The goal is to mimic the taste profile of the regular version of the product, but reduce the calories and fat. Examples of recent marketing successes include Edy’s/Dreyer’s Slow Churned ice creams and Hershey’s Simple Pleasures chocolates. Many different drinks, including soda, sports drinks, and juice are also trying to find success in this balancing act.

While I applaud the effort to provide “healthier” options to consumers, mid-calorie foods should not be thought of as diet foods. The labels used on mid-calorie food packages should not lead consumers to think that it is a low-fat or low-calorie diet food. In many instances, the mid-calorie food still contains relatively high amounts of fat and calories per serving. If incorporated into a person’s diet correctly, mid-calorie foods are an easy way to eliminate unnecessary fat and calories. For example, if someone has already decided to eat some chocolate, choosing Hershey’s Simple Pleasures over a regular Hershey’s chocolate bar is a good choice. But, the better choice may be to not have any chocolate at all. Moderation and variety are still the keys to a healthy diet.


Food Label Regulations Fall Short

by Bobbi Leal, UMN Law Student, MJLST Articles Editor

Thumbnail-Bobbi-Leal-ii.jpgA recent study, published in Agricultural Economics, found that the average body mass index for consumers that read nutrition labels is lower than those that do not read the labels. This finding implies that understanding and utilizing food and nutrition labels provides consumers with the information needed to make informed decisions about what they eat. However, a recent article by J.C. Horvath published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, “How Can Better Food Labels Contribute to True Choice?” makes evident that food labeling has a long way to go before it truly gives consumers the information necessary to make informed decisions.

Food label regulations, outlined by the Food and Drug Administration, have a number of flaws. The FDA has declined to define strict standards for use of the food label “all-natural,” claiming that the term is too nebulous to be strictly defined and standardized across the entire food industry. Undoubtedly, consumers assume that a food labeled as “all-natural” has not been chemically processed or structurally altered from its natural state. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The FDA has a vague policy which defines the term “natural,” to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic…is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there.” According to the Wall Street Journal, some ingredients that have been labeled as “all-natural” include high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified plants, and sodium benzoate.

Similarly, the approved use of certain terms, such as “artificial flavor,” “natural flavor,” and “artificial coloring” often hide significant details about the nature of the food. These three phrases can stand in for over 3900 food additives that come from a wide range of sources, giving the consumer no real notice of the substance or origin of the “flavor” or “coloring.” For example, beef tallow, gelatin, and lard can all be covered by these three phrases. Even the requirements for listing allergens is incomplete, as the FDA only requires that eight of the known allergic-reaction-inducing ingredients be explicitly listed: milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.

This recent study concerning the use of nutrition labels makes clear that when consumers read and understand food labels, they can make better choices for their health. In order for this to occur, however, it is imperative that the food labels which consumers rely upon are transparent and accurate. Food label regulations have not yet accomplished this objective.


Got GMOs?

by Ude Lu, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff.

Ude-Lue.jpgGMOs, genetically modified organisms, have long been a part of our daily diet. For example, most of the soybeans and corn on the supermarket shelves are GMOs. Currently, the issue of whether these GMOs should be labeled so that customers can make informed purchases is in a heated debate in California. California Proposition 37, which would require labeling of GMOs, will soon be voted in November this year. Proponents from both sides have poured millions of dollars into the campaign.

GMOs are plants that have been genetically engineered to be enhanced with characteristics that do not occur naturally, so that the harvest can be increased and the cost can be lowered. One example of a prominent GMO is soybean. Monsanto–a Missouri based chemical and agriculture company–introduced its genetically modified soybean, Roundup Ready, in 1996. Roundup Ready is infused with genes that resist weed-killers. In 2010, 93% of soybeans planted in the United States were Roundup Ready soybeans.

Although GMOs are one of the most promising solutions to address the sustainability of food supply in view of the growing global population, there are concerns in the public regarding their safety, and confusion as to which federal agency has responsibility for regulating them.

Amanda Welters in her article “Striking a balance: revising USDA regulations to promote competition without stifling innovation” published in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology explains the current regulatory scheme of GMOs. Three primary agencies regulate GMOs: the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The FDA regulates GMOs in interstate commerce that are intended to be consumed by animals or humans as foods, the EPA monitors how growing of GMOs impacts the environment, and the USDA assesses the safety of growing GMO plants themselves.

Specifically, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the USDA is responsible for ensuring crops are free of pests and diseases. APHIS is currently in the process of revising its regulations for GMOs in an attempt to improve transparency, eliminate unnecessary regulations and enhance clarity of regulations. Under the proposed regulations there will be three types of permits for GMOs: interstate movement, importation, and environmental release.

Taking the position that GMOs are generally beneficial and unavoidable, Welters suggests that the USDA should frame a regulatory structure similar to the Hatch-Waxman Act and the Biosimilar Act to promote both innovation and competition. Readers interested in the regulatory issues of GMOs and the balance between the interests of patent innovators and generic follow-ons would find Welters’ article informative and insightful.