The demand for reliable nutrition information about the food we consume is increasing. Consumers today are elevating their health consciousness to combat increasing levels of obesity, reduce obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and to avoid food allergens that could be potentially dangerous to them.
At the end of the day, accurate nutrition labels allow food manufacturers to be transparent about their products and help consumers to make good decisions about their eating habits. It’s a win-win for food manufacturers and the consumer population.
But, food labs are the sometimes overlooked middlemen between manufacturers and consumers. Food analysis plays a crucial role in the journey from field to table, but only if the results are reliable and accurate.
Ensuring Accuracy in Fact Panels
The benefits of providing accurate information on nutrition facts panels are obvious, but what’s the best way for food manufacturers to assess the accuracy of their claims?
When working with an analytical laboratory to generate the data necessary to populate the panel, there are a number of things the food manufacturer can do to optimize the quality of the data and minimize unnecessary effort in the process. Discussion and information on the following should be considered:
- What are the best means of sampling and shipping?
- Is the sample an ingredient or a finished product?
- Does the laboratory provide a checklist of what needs to be done?
- Are estimates of analytes available?
- What form is the analyte in?
- Are all analyses necessary based on knowledge of the sample?
- Is the serving size known?
Is the sample representative?
No matter how effective the analysis, the results are only as good as the sample being analyzed. Representative sampling is an essential part of obtaining accurate data.
The more heterogeneous the product or ingredient, the broader the sampling scheme should be. For example, compare samples with particulates versus a similar product without particulates. A cupcake without nuts is easily homogenized. A cupcake with nuts is not only heterogeneous within the cupcake, but the number of nuts within each cupcake can vary significantly. Therefore, a larger sampling of cupcakes with nuts is in order.
No matter how effective the analysis, the results are only as good as the sample being analyzed.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) selects 12 samples from a particular lot (e.g., the day of production) and composites them prior to conducting an analysis.
Analytical laboratories are well-equipped for compositing and homogenizing samples, and this service should be considered to assure a representative sample is being analyzed. It is generally most effective to allow experienced laboratory staff to complete the compositing.
Have the samples been prepared and shipped properly?
Samples for analysis should be carefully prepared, packaged, and shipped. Since foods are labeled on an “as is” basis, preservation of moisture content is essential for representative results. Samples that dry out will become concentrated, while samples that pick up moisture will be diluted.
In most cases, 200 grams of a sample is an adequate amount for analysis. All samples should be sealed and adequately cushioned to ensure no loss due to breakage or leakage. In many cases, shipping in the retail container and allowing a certified food laboratory to grind and composite the sample is the best way to prevent inaccuracies.
Dry goods and powdered ingredients are most easily shipped in plastic bags or solid plastic cups with the lids taped shut. Wet products that won’t spoil are best shipped in resealable plastic jars. Fresh and/or raw foods are best shipped in flexible plastic bags, frozen, then shipped with dry ice to ensure sample integrity. Sealable, foil-lined packages provide optimum protection and ease of use.
Label each sample, include the necessary paperwork, and be mindful of your preparation process. For example, do not use permanent markers (i.e., Sharpie) for samples that need to be tested for pesticide residues, flavor, or odor. Such markers will contaminate the sample.
Do you have an estimate of the analyte content and its form?
Keep in mind, re-running a sample analysis is an added expense for the laboratory and a delay for the customer in obtaining critical data. A good estimate of the analyte content provides the laboratory with a reference point when testing.
For many assays, the sample size (in weight), the dilution during testing, the number of reagents to use, and occasionally, the procedures followed, are influenced by the quantity of analyte present.
But don’t let the importance of quantity cloud your judgment; not having an estimate is better than a highly inaccurate estimate. Let’s use vitamin A as an example; the analyte form for this nutrient is critical to accurately testing and reporting results.
Both retinol and beta-carotene are sources of vitamin A activity, but the analyses involved are entirely different. To further complicate things, beta-carotene is synthetic or sourced from plants, while retinol is synthetic or sourced from animals.
Don’t let the importance of quantity cloud your judgment; not having an estimate is better than a highly inaccurate estimate.
Unnecessary analysis for either beta-carotene or retinol can be avoided if the origin of the food is known or the type of fortification is used. Similarly, cholesterol is found in animal fats while plant fats contain little or no cholesterol. So, if you know a product is entirely of plant origin, it alleviates the need for a cholesterol analysis.
Likewise, total dietary fiber has two components: insoluble dietary fiber and soluble dietary fiber, which have different calorie calculations. So, if the caloric value of the product is of concern, analysis of insoluble and soluble dietary fiber, rather than total dietary fiber, is worth considering.
Providing nutrition data on food packaging has been required since 1990 so, to be in compliance with federal law, manufacturers need to include it. But more important than legal compliance is the fact that consumers rely on this data to make decisions about what they consume—and those decisions can have far-reaching effects on their overall health.
Submitting your products for analytical food testing is a simple, cost-effective way to avoid nutritional surprises and provide the most accurate data possible to your consumer. If you’re curious about what information needs to be included on your nutrition label, check out our recent blog post, Nutrition Labels 101: What’s Required? What’s Optional?