With the recent trend of low carbohydrate diets, U.S. food companies have raced to market their products to carb-watchers. Many companies have reformulated staple products to reduce carbohydrate content and keep up with the diet trend. Others have chosen to emphasize the low carb nature of their existing products. From cereals to salad dressings to sodas, the labels on a growing number of products tout the carbohydrate content of their product.

However, foods labeled with words such as "low," "reduced," or "free," intending to describe the amount of carbohydrates in the product, are not permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Claims that characterize the amount of a nutrient in a food are called "nutrient content claims" and are only permitted if they are made in accordance with an authorizing regulation. Presently, there is no regulation addressing nutrient content claims for carbohydrates. Although factual statements about the actual amount of carbohydrates in a product may be permitted (e.g. "X grams of total carbohydrates per serving"), expressed carbohydrate claims such as "Low Carbohydrate" or "Carb Free" are not allowed under applicable FDA regulations. Likewise, claims that imply that the level of carbohydrates in a product are low or that emphasize a specific level of carbohydrate, such as "Only X grams of Carbs" or "Just X grams of Carbs," are not permitted. http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/obesity/factsheet.html. The addition of the words "only" and "just" in front of the amount of carbohydrates per serving transforms a factual statement of the amount of carbohydrates in a product to a characterization of the carbohydrate levels in a product. It is these characterizations that are prohibited.

FDA regulations authorize some product labeling that uses terms like "low" or "reduced," but these terms may only be used on labels where FDA has defined the terms with respect to the level of a particular nutrient in food (i.e., "light," "low fat," "reduced calorie,", "low cholesterol" and "sugar free"). Because the FDA has not yet defined nutrient content claims for carbohydrates, any product labels that attempt to characterize the level of carbohydrates in the product violate FDA regulations.

Notwithstanding these restrictions on carbohydrate content claims, a walk through any grocery store aisle will reveal that many companies are ignoring these FDA regulations. Food companies are taking risks because "low carb" labels are perceived to increase a product’s sales, and the FDA has not been aggressively enforcing the regulations governing carbcontent labels. However, other companies have attempted to achieve the same results while still complying with the regulations by including a factual statement about the amount of carbohydrates in a product (e.g., "X grams of total carbohydrates per serving"), and some companies are attempting to side-step the regulations by labeling their products as "carb-smart" or incorporating a low-carb description into the product name. Statements that do not expressly state or imply a specific level of carbohydrates are generally acceptable.

Food companies should be cautioned against labeling their products with words such as "low-carb," "reduced-carb," or "carbfree" in the absence of FDA regulations defining guidelines for nutrient content claims about carbohydrates. Petitions have been filed by several companies in the industry asking the FDA to define the terms that can characterize the level of carbohydrates in food. FDA has indicated that it intends to initiate the rulemaking proceedings for carbohydrate nutrient content claims soon, but the timeframe is uncertain. In light of these petitions and the anticipated new final rule, the FDA may begin stricter enforcement actions against companies in violation of these requirements.

Although the broader food industry must wait for the FDA to issue regulations concerning nutrient content claims, companies labeling meat and poultry products can look to a U.S. Department of Agriculture interim policy for guidance. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/larc/Policies/CarbLabel.htm. Companies labeling meat and poultry products cannot make claims that "expressly or by implication" characterize the level of carbohydrates in a product. Descriptions such as "low carbohydrate," "lower carbohydrate," "carb free," or "under X grams of carbs" are prohibited. However, statements that do not expressly state or imply a specific level of carbohydrates, such as "carb conscious" or "carb wise," are permitted. The interim policy specifies that carbohydrate content calculations on the labeling of meat and poultry products are acceptable, provided that they are adequately explained to the consumer and are not misleading.

Consistent with USDA’s generic label requirements, all labels for meat and poultry products bearing special statements such as those described above should be sent to the USDA’s Label and Consumer Protection Staff for evaluation and approval prior to use.

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