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Hey, why doesn’t my cup list coffee nutritional information?

You see them everywhere — those white rectangles on the sides of food and drink packaging. So why don’t you ever see coffee nutritional information?

The answer goes back farther than you think.

First, some history

Those labels haven’t always been around — only since the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was signed into law by the first President Bush in 1990. And even then it wasn’t really a new law. “Coffee nutritional information” doesn’t have to be labeled on cups or bags like lots of other stuff. And the reason goes back over 80 years.
The NLEA was an amendment to an existing law: the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. That one goes all the way back to 1938, and it is loooooong; 10 chapters defining and

regulating everything from food coloring to pacemakers. Basically, everything we or other people put in us or on us. At least, everything we’re legally supposed to. Want a definition of “butter”? Subchapter II, Section 321a. Also market names for catfish and ginseng (II, 321d), Modified Risk Tobacco Products (IX, 911) and Electronic Product Radiation Control (Chap. V).

The latest Stephen King page-turner, it isn’t.

What you won’t find in there is a description of that label we’re all used to. Certainly not a subchapter titled Nutritional Information: Coffee. Instead, one of the things the FD&C Act regulates is “misbranding” of … well, lots and lots of the things that are in the rest of those 10 chapters.

See, as huge as the FD&C is, it can’t cover everything. Congress expected there would be many, many changes. After all, it was only 1938. And they were right: things have changed. (When’s the last time you needed guidance on “Intrastate Sales of Colored Oleomargarine”?) So they wrote it to be adaptable. And adapt it they have — many, many times over the last 80-plus years.

Meet Mr. Nutritional Information

The year 1990 brought really major changes. That was the year George H.W. Bush named David Kessler commissioner of the FDA. Now, Kessler is a brilliant guy. He simultaneously earned his medical degree from Harvard and his law degree from University of Chicago. (So you know David Kessler probably drank a lot of coffee. Maybe still does. He’d better — Even before inauguration President Biden named Kessler co-chair of his 2021 COVID-19 Advisory Board.)

Kessler was also controversial. He’s best known for his very, very tight regulation of the tobacco industry, and many subsequent lawsuits. (At the time, a lot of members of Congress didn’t want to see tighter regulations on Big Tobacco because … Big Donations.) But it was also Kessler who got very specific about what should be on the side of a package of food. Or a drink container, like your coffee cup. Or that bag of French roast whole beans in your cupboard that is conspicuously blank where you might expect to find coffee nutritional information.

So with the passage of the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act, Kessler’s FDA began requiring labels that include:

  • Serving size
  • Servings per container
  • Calories per serving, from …
  • Total fat and saturated fat
  • Amount of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, etc., etc.

See the pattern? Except for serving and container size, none of that stuff applies to “Nutritional Information: Coffee” because coffee doesn’t have any of that stuff. And of course, with coffee, the serving size is completely up to you. You can have as much as you want. Yes, coffee is guilt-free!

But what about nutritional information for the foam? The In-foam-ation?

“Wait!” you say. “Coffee isn’t the only thing in my cup. What about all the other delights that make up my tall Pumpkin Spice Half-caff Latte with Soy? Shouldn’t that require a coffee nutritional information label?”

Well, yeah, that’s a problem … if you’re the Label Police. Or if you’re counting calories, in which case you probably don’t want to be dumping a bunch of non-coffee in your cup anyway.

But because all of those extra goodies you can put in your cup are just that — extra — they’re considered optional and not part of the coffee itself. So you won’t see a “Nutritional Information: Coffee” label even on those fancy drinks. But if you look on the all-natural Pumpkin Spice flavoring container, you bet you’ll find a label. Also on the carton of soy milk. And on the bag the sugar comes out of that some drinkers insist on adding to their PSH-CL+S. (Hey, you do you. No judging here.) But that bag o’beans? Before all the options? It’s an FDA-free zone.

So you might say, “They don’t require coffee nutritional information because coffee isn’t nutritious.” (Some of us would strongly disagree with that. Particularly in the morning before our first cup. Fair warning.) But that’s not really it. You don’t see a “Nutritional Information: Coffee” rectangle because your coffee cup contains … coffee. Everything else that goes in it is already labeled independently, if you need to see a label. And really, don’t we see enough labeling all around us in the world today?

Now, if you’re a coffee distributor and you label a bag “100% Kopi luwak,” you better be sure all the beans made their way through the dark recesses of a civet before they got to the bag. Otherwise, your coffee is misbranded.

David Kessler is still out there. And he hasn’t had his coffee.

Grab a cup and indulge today!

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