Prime Label Consultants Navigating Keto Labeling Requirements
For health food brands, nutrition labeling thus offers an opportunity to attract consumers looking for healthier food options. Furthermore, the increasing interest in healthier food options also allows health food brands an opportunity to engage with potential customers via their labeling and packaging messages. Unfortunately, the federal government´s nutrition labeling requirements can be confusing to navigate. For many food brands, non-compliance with nutrition and other labeling requirements could result in litigation or agency enforcement resulting in fines and other damage to the food brand. Prime Label Consultants (PLC) has been helping food brands from various industries and niches navigate food labeling compliance since 1972. We recently interviewed Jesse Zuehlke, the general manager at Prime Label Consultants, to learn about the services that PLC offers to food brands. Besides sharing about the general services that PLC offers, we also explore how Prime Label Consultants can help the CPG community navigate Keto labeling concerns.
In past decades, food labels tended to be ignored by consumers as nutrition, diets, and healthy lifestyles were relatively trivial concerns of the majority of the population. Today, however, an estimated 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, and the population spends upwards of $33 billion each year on weight-loss products. Beyond simple dieting and weight loss goals, the global health and wellness food market is expected to approach 811.82 billion U.S. dollars by the end of this year. People increasingly care about what they are putting in their bodies, and food labeling plays an important role in helping those consumers make educated and well-informed decisions regarding their food purchases.
Recent research by the NPD Group finds that nearly 90 percent of U.S. consumers take the time to carefully read the nutrition labels on the foods they purchase. Well over half of those consumers are most interested in looking at the amount of sugars in a given product, while 45 percent of adults say they look at the nutrition facts label to find information on calories. Both sugars and calories are subject to changes in the federal government’s updated nutrition facts labeling rules. These new labeling rules went into effect on January 1st of 2021 for food brands with less than $10 million in annual food sales, and in 2020 for food brands that surpassed the $10 million threshold in sales.
Furthermore, a 2018 survey conducted by Food Insight determined that package labeling is a primary source of health information for consumers. The survey found that 59 percent of respondents said that they always read labels on a packaged food before buying it for the first time.
The Nutrition Facts panel (69%) and the ingredient list (67%) were the two places where most consumers look for information about food healthfulness.
Who are Prime Label Consultants?
Prime Label Consultants got its start back in 1972 when Elizabeth Bechtold, a stay-at-home mother located in a Washington, DC suburb, did a favor for a relative, who owned a meat company in Minnesota. Knowing she lived near the USDA offices in DC, Bechtold´s relative asked her to take some labels which needed regulatory approval to the nearby offices. Given her strategic location, Bechtold turned that one-time favor into a thriving business opportunity, helping food companies across the country adhere to the ever-changing food labeling requirements. After twenty years of operation, Bechtold was honored by the Small Business Association as Entrepreneur of the Year. With almost fifty years of operation, Prime Label Consultants continues to be one of the most trusted names in food labeling.
Today, Prime Label Consultants has three core business areas: Label consulting; label compliance software; and an annual conference for food labeling professionals. According to the PLC website, “each of these business segments is independently well regarded and successful, but jointly, have created a highly reputed and trusted Prime Label brand.”
An Overview of the Services that Prime Label Consultations Offers to the CPG Community
Prime Label Consultants provides labeling compliance support to food brands through consulting, training, and technology solutions. Development of compliant nutrition facts panels, guidance on marketing claims, and review of label artwork are examples of some of the consulting services that the company offers, and that can have a direct impact on a brand’s compliance profile.
According to PLC General Manager Jesse Zuehlke, “getting a team up to speed or on the same page about labeling compliance can be a challenge, and another way food brands can engage PLC. We are proud to provide training on labeling, nutrition, and marketing compliance to hundreds of food industry professionals each year through online, onsite, and customized training programs, including our annual Food Label Conference (over 30 years strong!). On the technology front, PLC offers an off-the-shelf program that allows clients to generate compliant Nutrition Facts Panels, validate claims and maintain records, as well as software-enabled services designed to detect errors on finished Nutrition Facts Panels or flag potential ingredients that may be subject to bioengineered food disclosure.”
PLC also offers specific services to smaller brands within the health food niche. The health food segment is complex when it comes to keeping products competitive and compliant. Zuehlke states that “from our experience, brands in this space are often run by some of the most innovative thinkers in the industry, but may be limited in their regulatory know-how or resources for labeling compliance. One of the best ways to help brands in the health food niche is for us to start with an introductory call about the brand identity, target consumer, desired claims, and label development process. From there, PLC can recommend services that meet the client’s timeline, communication style and priorities.”
The combination of PLC´s people, products, and technology is the key to their success in navigating the health food niche. Their consultants come from a diverse array of technical backgrounds and experiences and are in touch with products across traditional and novel food and beverage categories. “We keep our services simple so any brand can get the consulting support they need – from concept to shelf,” Zuehlke says. “Layer in the software and proprietary systems we’ve designed for compliance and efficiency, and we are a critical partner to help brands achieve their labeling goals.”
Labeling Challenges for Brands that Market to the Keto Diet
Brands that market products in the “keto” or “low-carb” space are faced with the challenge of meeting consumer demand for undefined “diet” trends, while also navigating different expectations of regulatory agencies. At the same time, there has been a proliferation in consumer complaints against brands making claims related to nutrition and “better-for-you” attributes. Unfortunately, many honest and authentic “low-carb” food brands get unfairly grouped into these consumer complaints.
Zuehlke says that “Keto is not defined by FDA or USDA, nor does a universally accepted standard exist. Lack of definition can lead to litigation or potential future agency enforcement. FDA-regulated products are more likely to bear a keto-related claim as the USDA expressly prohibits use of a “keto” claim on product labeling at this time.”
Similarly, “Low Carb” claims are also not permitted by FDA or USDA, and brands are not allowed to characterize a product as being “low” in carbohydrates, even through implied statements such as “Only 5g of Total Carbohydrate.”
“That’s not to say you won’t find brands in the market that state or imply low carb,” Zuehlke says, “as there are plenty of products out there not following the rules. Brands have received Warning Letters for use of these types of claims.”
“Net Carb” statements are often used as an alternative by brands who want to appeal to consumers seeking specific carbohydrate profiles. While “Net Carb” is not defined as a claim, both agencies permit a statement of fact about Net Carbohydrates, for example, “3g Net Carbohydrates”. FDA and USDA have communicated that a statement about Net Carbohydrates, without an explanation about where the value came from, may be misleading to consumers, therefore labeling must also contain information on how the value was derived.
Services that Prime Label Consultants Offer to the CPG Community Attempting to Navigate Keto Labeling Concerns
Prime Label Consultants can help the CPG community navigate keto labeling concerns in a couple of different ways, depending on each brand’s progress in pursuit of this product positioning. In a general sense, PLC recommends that brands that decide to apply undefined claims develop their own internal standard, maintain substantiation demonstrating each product’s qualification, and apply the standard consistently across all products bearing the claim. Additionally, brands should commit to routine evaluation of their standard for applicability and risks as food technology, nutrition science, and the regulatory landscape evolve.
“If a company decides to develop their own internal “keto” standard, PLC can play a role in reviewing the standard and providing feedback on risks and opportunities for the brand,” Zuehlke tells us. “Alternatively, in the absence of a brand-defined standard, PLC may recommend pursuit of a keto certification with an organization such as the Paleo Foundation, given the Third Party has already developed a process by which to vet product eligibility and substantiate the desired claims.”
In any of the scenarios described above, PLC recommends that brands have their label artwork reviewed to evaluate the claim in the full context of the label and ensure all other content is compliant. Regulators, consumers, and lawyers do not look at claims in isolation. It is the full context, explicit and implied – that is important.
Recently, Prime Label Consultants helped a small, low-carb snack brand successfully implement keto claims through a review of their internal standard and prospective formulas considered for the claim. “Core components of the review included feedback on compliance red flags, suggestions to mitigate risk, considerations regarding consumer expectations, and recommendations on internal stakeholder input that would be critical to launch and maintain a consistent labeling strategy,” Zuehlke says.
The rapid growth in dietary trends offers both an opportunity and a challenge for health food brands. The millions of people who follow the Keto or Paleo diets, for example, constitute a substantial consumer market for health food brands in these niches. However, “diet” trends attract a diverse range of followers, so making sure your product is truthful and not misleading is critical – especially when consumers may seek out a product bearing “keto” and “low-carb” claims for certain perceived benefits.
“Brands that use these claims cannot state or imply the food will treat, mitigate or prevent a disease, which would classify the product as a drug,” Zuehlke clarifies. “And if a product is marketed as suitable for consumers adhering to ketogenic eating patterns, brands must ensure that the labeling does not mislead consumers about the nutritional content of the product. There have been challenges regarding “net carb” claims and their associated calculations, which is why even related claims should be applied with caution.”
Prime Label Consultants offers a simple suite of services to tackle a complex array of labeling challenges, especially for health food brands trying to navigate Keto and low-carb labeling concerns. “Whether consultation via email, phone or zoom is preferred, or a client has a label ready for review, PLC can help,” Zuehlke says.