When a Label Lies, How Do Consumers Know? 

For farmers making value-added products, whether processed foods or dietary supplements, labeling regulations can become a real issue. Claims made about farm products can potentially cause strife down the road—in the form of FDA enforcement or, as a sports nutrition company recently found, pushback from once loyal customers. We explore one case that a Farm Commons staff member experienced personally.

Eva, our Education Program Director, is an avid long-distance runner who relies on energy gels to get her through long runs. Because of this, she was disappointed to learn that a popular gel she once considered a “gamechanger” for performance was, to put it mildly, overstating the nutritional benefits of its ‘Awesome Sauce’.

The company claimed each of its energy gel packets contained 180 calories and 45 grams of carbohydrates, made with “real food” ingredients, including rice, apples, and maple syrup. Yum! As endurance athletes typically aim to ingest 60-90 grams of carbohydrates an hour, these gels are very popular in the running community.

As hungry and skeptical runners suspected the claims were too good to be true, they had the product tested by third parties. The independent testing showed that, at best, the gels have only 76 calories and 18 grams of carbohydrates.

This left Eva and her running buddies questioning everything about nutrition labels. Could these labels be trusted? Wasn’t the FDA testing products before they hit the market? The answer is no. The FDA doesn’t approve food labels before products hit the market. But just because there isn’t FDA pre-market approval, that doesn’t mean that label compliance isn’t important.

Farmers are an unlikely candidate for energy gel manufacture (…maybe a new market opportunity?). Yet, there are a lot of farmers who process their fruits, vegetables, and herbs into value-added products. For those farmers who do, it’s important to understand the regulatory and market dynamics. If consumers catch wind that your labels aren’t accurate, it can cause sales to dry up and your brand’s reputation to take a hit.

This is why label accuracy isn’t just a regulatory obligation for farmers creating value-added products but also an ethical issue between your business and the consumer. Labeling decisions have a lot of impact as the product makes its way through the supply chain. Consumers may choose a product based on a marketing claim that it would benefit their health, assurance that it is free of a certain allergen, or, like the athletes referenced above, because of its stated nutritional content.

Despite not approving labels before market, FDA does regulate labels for products after they hit the market. If the FDA finds that labels violate its regulations, it can start an enforcement action by sending a warning letter. Here is a searchable, public database for warning letters the FDA has sent to food and dietary supplement companies. It is helpful to look through these to understand the types of labeling issues the FDA is most concerned with.

If you are a producer making value-added products, take a look at our Farmers’ Legal Guide to Botanical Products. This guide covers regulations that apply to dietary supplements but opens with a discussion about how products generally considered food can fall into the dietary supplement regulatory category just based on what the label says about the product.

In the next few months, Farm Commons will start our next phase of research into botanical products and dietary supplement regulation with a focus on foraged items and crop insurance. If you are interested in learning more about this upcoming project, get in touch with us by emailing: info@farmcommons.org! We will make sure you are aware when we launch the program!