On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it is providing more regulatory flexibility for food suppliers due to specific food and ingredient shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other changes, "we are providing flexibility for manufacturers to use existing labels, without making otherwise required changes, when making minor formula adjustments due to unforeseen shortages or supply chain disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic," the updated rules read. Basically, this means that food companies are allowed to slightly change their formulations (such as swapping in ingredients or going without minor ingredients they normally use) without having to update their nutrition label and ingredients panel.
These changes are temporary, the FDA says; they are intended to last only until the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lifts the current public health emergency declaration. (However, there is no clear information right now on when exactly that will be.)
Changing ingredients in a product without updating a label can feel scary if you have a food allergy—since specific ingredients can be problematic and even dangerous if accidentally consumed, even in small amounts. But despite the rules relaxation, rest assured that there are still some protections in place for people with allergies. The FDA stipulates that if a brand wants to make changes without updating their labels, they must ensure that "the ingredient being substituted for the labeled ingredient does not cause any adverse health effect—including food allergens, gluten, sulfites, or other ingredients known to cause sensitivities."
Additionally, brands must make sure that "an omission or substitution of the ingredient does not affect any voluntary nutrient content or health claims on the label; and...an omission or substitution of the labeled ingredient does not have a significant impact on the finished product (including nutritional differences or functionality)." So don't expect your nutrition labels to suddenly become meaningless—the products must still essentially be the same, and the rules ultimately only allow for small, minimal substitutions.
Not sure how to read a nutrition label? Watch this video:
However, there are still some grey areas to this new regulatory guidance that may affect people with less-common (but still serious) food allergies and sensitivities, says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, author of The Better Periods Food Solution and host of You Versus Food host. "If you have a specific food sensitivity, allergy, or even a food aversion beyond the major eight food allergens or to common spices like sesame or mustard, it’s possible these ingredients may not be updated or declared in the label change as they are not declared a major adjustment," she says. "If this is of concern to you, directly reach out to the company and get your questions answered before you dig in."
Very likely, you'll find that nothing has changed about the process your go-to foods are being processed. A gluten-free bread brand, for example, isn't going to start adding gluten to their products. Still, Beckerman says it's better safe than sorry, so to proceed with caution. "Given the fast-paced and possible cursory monitoring, there’s likely to be some oversight. We know product availability is scarce right now and it’s important to be flexible with food manufacturers, but we shouldn’t feel duped when it comes to food labeling."
Thankfully, Beckerman says that there are a lot of healthy foods in the grocery store that don't require any label reading at all: whole foods like beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, tofu, and virtually everything in the produce section. So when in doubt, she recommends doing your best to fill up on these kinds of foods instead of packaged options.
The bottom line: If you have a food allergy or sensitivity, these FDA rules are mostly benign and shouldn't impact your health too much. But if you're nervous about potential changes—or have a less-common allergy—it's wise to either confirm directly with the manufacturer or skip the product altogether for the time being.
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