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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is looking to update its “nutrition facts” label based on the latest nutrition science, but one Iowa State University professor said she thinks the agency could go even further toward educating – and protecting – consumers.
“The proposed rules do not require (manufacturers) to add caffeine to the label,” said Ruth Litchfield, associate professor and associate chair of ISU's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “If that information is on the label, it's because the manufacturer has decided to do that.”
Identifying when caffeine and other stimulants are present in a product – and how much – could be especially relevant for consumers of energy drinks, Litchfield said. Teens and young adults make up about half of the energy drink market, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 20 percent of that group assumes the beverages are safe.
But Litchfield said some can contain as much 500 mg of caffeine – the equivalent of five cups of coffee – and regular consumption at that level can have real health implications.
“Your heart rate and blood pressure will increase, and you'll have increased risk for arrhythmias,” she said. “If you consistently consume these for a prolonged period of time, you're increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease.”
Litchfield said she believes part of the reason some consumers don't know about potential health risks associated with energy drinks is because the FDA doesn't require food and drink manufacturers to provide information about caffeine on packages.
She also pointed out that many energy drinks avoid nutrition facts all together by marketing themselves as supplements, rather than beverages. Companies that make supplements don't have to comply by the same “burden of proof” standards that food and beverage makers do, Litchfield said.
“That's just the way the law was set up,” she said. “And if we want to change it, it will require an act of congress.”
For energy drinks marketed as beverages, however, change could come easier, according to Litchfield. With the FDA looking to revamp its nutrition facts labels – both in the way they appear and the information they provide – now is the time to push for disclosure of stimulants, she said.
“I think it's possible … if there are enough public comments that this is something we need to include on the labels,” Litchfield said. “(The FDA) reads each and every comment.”
And caffeine isn't the only concern, she said. Many of the energy drinks on the market contain additional stimulants like ma huang, also known as ephedra, and guarana. And even if a beverage container lists those as ingredients in today's market, Litchfield said, there is no way to know how much is in each serving.
“When people get a drink out of a vending machine, there is the expectation that it has gone through the FDA approval process,” she said. “But if it's a product that's being marketed as a supplement, not food, then that's not the case.”
Some cities and states have discussed banning or restricting the sale of energy drinks to minors due to the potential health risks – an idea that Litchfield does not oppose. And, Litchfield said, even though the FDA's proposed update to its nutrition facts mandate could go further, she's pleased with some of the recommended changes.
“I think they will be helpful,” she said.
The FDA has broken down its proposed changes into two categories – revisions of the nutrition and supplement facts label and updates to the serving sizes of foods. Among the proposed changes are requirements to list “added sugars,” declare the amount of potassium and vitamin D, and make the calories and serving sizes more prominent “to emphasize parts of the label that are important in addressing current public health concerns, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
The proposed changes would update serving size requirement to “reflect how people eat and drink today, which has changed since serving sizes were first established 20 years ago.” By law, nutritional information should be based on what people actually eat – rather than what they should eat.
Litchfield said the industry conducts ongoing surveillance of what Americans eat through surveys, and serving size information will be updated to reflect that information. For example, a 20 ounce bottle of pop listed today as including two and a half servings might be listed as having one serving under the new rules.
Anyone can comment about the proposed rules – or suggest new ones – online at fda.gov. The agency is expected to announce new rules in the fall or winter, although Litchfield said it could be years before consumers see changes to packages in the stores.