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Conjuring with calories: Regulation and labeling changes

By Sarah Hills , 24-Nov-2008

There was something magical about the recent news that the caloric value of both gum arabic and erythritol have been officially lowered, but whether it turns out to be a sleight of hand or a real change remains to be seen.

In the US the calorie count per gram for gum arabic has been more than halved and in the EU erythritol is now recognized as a zero calorie sweetener.

This is expected to benefit low-calorie product makers but also raises questions about what is to be believed on labels.

In fact, these ‘now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t’ regulation changes remind me of a magician, who, with a sleight of hand, can make something disappear in a puff of smoke.

Likewise, in a flash, the number of calories that manufacturers can put on their labels has altered, which makes me wonder what the real calorie content is when it can differ so widely between countries, and why does it take so long for regulation to catch up with research?

As with a magician who spends hours perfecting a trick, a wealth of research lies behind these latest changes, but there seems to be a lag before this is officially recognized and labels and formulations can be changed.

It is good to err on the side of caution as it would be dangerous to presume foods are less calorific than they actually are. However, speeding up the regulatory process could help the industry develop better products and better communicate health attributes.

For food manufacturers who are as fastidious as accountants, this is significant because even a slight change in regulation can elevate products into the realm of reduced calorie, or lower-calorie status.

Gum arabic

Colloides Naturels International (CNI) said it received a no objection letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in October to a request that it made “some years ago” for the caloric value of gum arabic, a fiber and emulsifier, to be changed from four to 1.7 calories per gram.

Until then, the exact same product would have more calories on its label in the US than in Europe, for example, where the caloric value was already less than two per gram.

CNI said it submitted at least four different studies to back this up, as the previous high calorie value for gum arabic in the US had been a major drawback during the formulation and development of new products.

Erythritol

Similarly, across the Atlantic, the energy conversion value of erythritol within the EU had been the same as all other polyols, 2.4 kCal/g.

But a Commission directive posted in Europe's official journal on 28 October said that the energy conversion value of erythritol is now zero calories.

Henry Hussell, head of marketing at Cargill Sweetness, said that an opinion from the European Food Safety Authority in 2003 echoed the low-calorie status of erythritol.

Since then industry has been awaiting official recognition for the low-calorie level from the Commission because with this new status comes fresh opportunities, as manufacturers can significantly cut the calorie value in a formulation.

So, for the food industry and dieters alike, every number counts, yet calorie labeling seems to offer nothing more than a rough guide.

Perhaps then, it would be easier to follow the magician’s lead and pick a number, any number, between one and ten, and see what can be conjured up next.

Sarah Hills is the senior reporter at FoodNavigator-USA.com. If you would like to comment on this article please email sarah.hills 'at' decisionnews.com.

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