This week, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce its authorization of food-labeling claims for choline. It marks the first nutrient to be approved for such claims under the FDA Modernization Act of 1997.

Central Soya

Central Soya

Although choline is hardly a household name, its low visibility doesn’t reflect its importance. This micronutrient not only helps maintain the structural integrity of membranes surrounding every cell in the body but also can play a role in nerve signaling, cholesterol transport, and energy metabolism.

Whereas the traditional U.S. diet probably contained plenty of choline, people now eating low-fat and low-cholesterol fare may be coming up short.

Research suggests that it may be especially important that pregnant women eat plenty of choline. In animal studies, too little choline during a certain phase of fetal development caused lifelong learning and memory impairments.

Because the body can make choline, scientists had for years debated whether people needed to supplement their diet with this nutrient. In 1998, however, an expert panel convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in Washington, D.C., concluded that diets low in choline might lead to serious health problems. It recommended an adequate intake standard of 550 milligrams per day for men and 425 mg/day for women.

This first official recommendation on daily intake was a pivotal step in heightening public awareness of choline and its role in staying healthy. The IOMs extensive review of research on choline also gave food manufacturers a chance to tap the FDA Modernization Act for quick authorization of choline labeling.

Earlier this year, Central Soya Co. of Ft. Wayne, Ind., stepped up to the plate. FDA formally approved the firms request for choline product labeling this month. Other companies are now also free to begin labeling their choline-rich products.

In the past, such nutrient-content claims invariably fell under the decade-old Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Before a company could advertise a health or nutrient claim on the label–for example that a product is low fat or contains something that may reduce the risk of heart disease–it had to amass reams of data supporting the claim, then file them with FDA.

Expect savvy food manufacturers to soon begin slapping bright banner labels across their products, like the one shown above for a fictitious bread company. However, before manufacturers can label any food as being a good source of choline, they must establish that it has at least 55 milligrams per serving. To tout it as an excellent source, the food must contain at least twice as much of the nutrient per serving.

Whole eggs, liver, beef steak, and soy are among foods naturally rich in choline. Now, in response to the new ruling, manufacturers are expected to begin fortifying a host of processed foods–such as bread, yogurt, and orange juice–with lecithin, a major choline-containing ingredient in soy.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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