“Medical food” is a commonly misunderstood term as it is used on FDA regulated products. Many manufacturers want to market their products as medical foods because medical foods are exempt from the disease statement limitations for health and structure/function claims and are allowed to name the diseased population for whom they are designed. The following paragraphs provide details on FDA’s approach to medical foods, but the policy can be summarized as: a medical food is intended for people who have a disease or condition that results in a distinctive nutritional need which cannot be met by a diet of regular food, but is met by the medical food. The disease or condition must be identified, the distinctive nutritional need must be substantiated by data, and it must be demonstrated that the product would meet the identified nutritional need.
Prior to 1972, medical foods were primarily formulas for managing patients with inherited metabolic diseases. They were mainly orphan products for limited populations. They were considered drugs to ensure their use under medical supervision. However, in 1972 the FDA reclassified these products from drugs to foods for special dietary use to enhance their development and availability. In the intervening years, a wide variety of products categorized as medical foods have been developed. Currently, marketed medical foods with a wide variety of claims are used extensively as a life support modality in the management of the critically ill and elderly. They are required to conform only to those regulations dealing with general food safety and labeling to be distributed in the United States.
The 1988 Orphan Drug Act (21 U.S.C. 360ee(b)(3)) provides financial incentives (such as drug application fee exemptions, and market exclusivity) to promote development of “orphan drugs” for treating rare diseases and conditions. Medical foods were included in the Orphan Drug Act to include dietary therapies, along with pharmaceuticals, as eligible for financial incentives for developing orphan drugs. Medical food was defined within the context of new drug development, not for regulating the use of such products. The Orphan Drug Act did not amend the FD&C Act to add medical foods as a regulatory category.
The Orphan Drug Act definition of medical food is:
A food which is formulated to be consumed or administered enterally under the supervision of a physician and which is intended for the specific dietary management of a disease or condition for which distinctive nutritional requirements, based on recognized scientific principles, are established by medical evaluation.
There are presently no FDA regulations specific to medical foods other than the exemption provisions in the nutrition labeling regulation. The following criteria that clarify the statutory definition of a medical food can be found in FDA’s regulations at 21 CFR 101.9(j)(8). A medical food is exempt from the nutrition labeling requirements of 21 CFR 101.9 only if:
- It is a specially formulated and processed product (as opposed to a naturally occurring foodstuff used in its natural state) for the partial or exclusive feeding of a patient by means of oral intake or enteral feeding by tube, meaning a tube or catheter that delivers nutrients beyond the oral cavity directly into the stomach or small intestine;
- It is intended for the dietary management of a patient who, because of therapeutic or chronic medical needs, has limited or impaired capacity to ingest, digest, absorb, or metabolize ordinary foodstuffs or certain nutrients, or who has other special medically determined nutrient requirements, the dietary management of which cannot be achieved by the modification of the normal diet alone;
- It provides nutritional support specifically modified for the management of the unique nutrient needs that result from the specific disease or condition, as determined by medical evaluation;
- It is intended to be used under medical supervision; and
- It is intended only for a patient receiving active and ongoing medical supervision wherein the patient requires medical care on a recurring basis for, among other things, instructions on the use of the medical food.
FDA published in 1996 an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) in which the agency discussed its interpretation of the Orphan Drug Act definition of medical food. (https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-1996-11-29/pdf/96-30441.pdf) While FDA later withdrew this ANPR due to lack of resources to devote to the subject of medical foods, the agency stated that it still retained the positions described in the document. A subsequent guidance document on medical foods provided advice consistent with positions in the ANPR. (http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/ucm054048.htm)
FDA considers the statutory definition of medical foods to narrowly constrain the types of products that fit within the category. Outside of medical foods that have been developed for dietary management of rare diseases, FDA has considered most products marketed as medical foods, not to meet the definition of a medical food. The types of products that have been the target of FDA medical food Warning Letters include products intended for the dietary management of allergies and asthma, lactose intolerance, psoriasis, constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis, arthritis, failure-to-thrive, injury/trauma, pre/post surgery, and prenatal vitamins. The FDA guidance document specifically states that pregnancy and diabetes are not diseases or conditions for which there is a distinctive nutritional need that could only be met by a medical food.