FDA Publishes Memorandum on Use of Symbols to Communicate Nutrition Information

April 27, 2009

By Susan J. Matthees

Last week FDA published a memorandum titled “FDA Comments on Symbols Public Hearing and Current Plans for Addressing Issues.”  The memorandum responds to questions and issues raised during a September 10-11, 2007 hearing titled "Use of Symbols to Communicate Nutrition Information, Consideration of Consumer Studies and Nutritional Criteria," and discusses FDA’s current plans for front-end nutrition labeling.  The memorandum explains that FDA still “has gaps” in its understanding of the issues related to the use of symbols and “will continue to actively evaluate the issues regarding the use of nutrition symbols in food labeling.” 

FDA has concentrated discussions on front-end nutrition labeling on three main issues: nutrition issues, which are related to the types of symbols and the requirements for those symbols; consumer issues, which are related to how consumers understand and use symbols; and economic issues, which are related to “the economic impacts of nutrition symbols on food labels.”  FDA’s memorandum explains that the meeting and comments that followed did not provide sufficient data to fully answer all the questions surrounding these issues. 

With respect to the nutrition information, the memorandum states that FDA got little information on how consumers understand the symbols.  FDA further states that “the public hearing produced little usable research or other information on the majority of consumer issues listed in the public hearing notice.”  As a result, FDA plans to conduct studies “using qualitative and quantitative research techniques” in order to learn more about how consumers use and understand nutrition symbols.  Finally, FDA found that the cost of implementing a nutrition symbol program varies by manufacturer and that it is unclear whether the symbols actually encourage consumers to buy specific products. 

FDA outlines a plan for developing more information on the use of symbols in nutrition labeling, which is primarily focused on continued research of the topic.  However, the Agency makes no statements about when it will address the issue again, and it is likely that it could be several years before the agency addresses the issue again. 

Categories: Foods