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December 26, 2008

FDA's Label Mafia strikes again

It's interesting how a single word can send the Food and Drug Administration into a tizzy. Scientific American reports that Coca-Cola's "Diet Coke Plus" has one word too many in its name:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning the Coca-Cola Company to revise its labeling of Diet Coke Plus so that it doesn't mislead consumers into believing that the pop, a brew of chemicals mixed in with some vitamins and minerals, is healthy.

A letter posted on the FDA's Web site yesterday tells Coke that the soda is "misbranded" because only products that contain at least 10 percent more of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) or Daily Reference Value (DRV) for a given nutrient "than an appropriate reference food" can legally call themselves "plus." The Diet Coke Plus label doesn't name such a reference food, says the FDA. RDI refers to how much daily consumption of a particular nutrient is sufficient for healthy adults, and it's included in the DRVs on nutrition labels that base those values on caloric intake.
I would guess that most of the FDA's food regulations are based on the assumption that the vast majority of the public are suckers who can't read label claims in context.

The front of the Diet Coke Plus label is very simple. There's the product name, and then the phrase, "Diet Coke With Vitamins & Minerals". That's it: Diet Coke plus some other stuff. Is it possible to misinterpret that?

Based on SciAm's reporting on the incident, it appears the FDA doesn't think that anybody reads the FDA-mandated nutrition label to find out what vitamins and minerals are present, and in what amounts. If that is true, maybe Joe Gullible could be tricked into thinking that the word "Plus" magically transforms the product into health food. If so, Joe has other issues that need to be dealt with.

A halfhearted Attaboy goes to Coca-Cola, which hasn't admitted any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, they're not challenging the sanity of the rule -- they just insist that their product complies with FDA regulations.

The FDA letter adds a nice touch by dropping hints to Congress about where soft drink regulations should go from here:
Your product Diet Coke Plus is a carbonated beverage. The policy on fortification in 21 CFR 104.20(a) states that the FDA does not consider it appropriate to fortify snack foods such as carbonated beverages.
It's just a few short steps from "the FDA does not consider it appropriate to fortify" to "the FDA prohibits fortifying". For your own good, of course.

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