A Face-Lift for Food Labels

Food labels are confusing.  They have been for decades (the last major updates were made in 1990), and often do more to mislead and confuse consumers than they do to help them make healthful choices.  But, it looks like some members of congress are finally trying to do something about it.

label reading

The Food Labeling Modernization Act was introduced this month by three congressional Democrats: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT) and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ).  They argue that “new labeling requirements are needed in order to deliver the consistent, clear information that Americans need to combat the obesity crisis and make healthier choices.”

Some of the changes included in the bill are:

  • Whole Grain. Any product labeled as “whole grain”, “whole wheat”, “multi-grain” or “wheat” will have to list the amount of grain (as a percentage of total grains) on the label.
  • Serving Size. Any product which contains an amount of food reasonably consumed on a single occasion (i.e. single serving potato chips, candy bars, etc.) must be labeled as one serving and the nutrition information must be based on the entire package.  Currently, if calorie, fat or sugar content is too high, companies can label the product as more than one serving to reduce the numbers.
  • “Natural”. The use of the term “natural” will no longer be allowed on foods containing ingredients made through a non-traditional chemical process.  Examples include high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and maltodextrin.
  • Artificial Sweeteners.  There is currently no requirement for companies to disclose the use of artificial (non-caloric) sweeteners.  Though they are listed in the ingredients list, it is usually by their chemical name (sucralose, aspartame, etc.) which many consumers cannot identify as an artificial sweetener.  This bill would require full disclosure on the nutrition facts panel.
  • “Healthy”. The use of the term “healthy” will only be permitted on grain-based foods if at least half of the grains are whole.
  • Added Sugars. Many foods, like fruit and dairy products, contain both naturally occurring and added refined sugar.  However, food manufactures are currently only required to label the total amount of sugar in the product.  This bill would take out the guess work for consumers looking to avoid added sugar.
  • Sugar. Nutrition labels will have to include the percent recommended for daily consumption for total sugars and added sugars, which currently are excluded.
  • Caffeine. Companies will have to disclosure the amount of caffeine in any food or beverage which contains more than 10 milligrams.  Considering food manufacturers have been adding the stuff to everything from waffles to Cracker Jacks, this could be very helpful for consumers, especially parents.
  • Front of Pack Labels. These labels are meant to be a quick nutrition guide for shoppers in the grocery aisle, however, most are created by the food companies themselves, so they highlight the healthier qualities of the food (i.e. 100% DV vitamin C) and omit the less healthy properties (high in sugar.)  This bill would require uniform guidelines for all food companies, creating less confusion for consumers trying to make healthy choices.

So, how likely is this bill to get passed? If history is any indication, not very.

In 2009, Congress directed the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to conduct a study on Front-of-package labeling and recommend a standard labeling system.   However, the FDA backed off of efforts to implement it after the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) created and began implementing the industry’s own new labeling system in 2011.

facts-up-front

The industry program, Facts Up Front, has been showing up on food packages for the last four years.  Not surprisingly, the system includes an opportunity for companies to highlight positive qualities of a product (usually fortified nutrients — like fiber and calcium), making the system more of a marketing tactic than anything that could be perceived as informative.  Companies would never willingly agree to full disclosure about their food products because they know health conscious consumers wouldn’t buy them.

Case in point: The GMA’s response to the new Food Label Modernization bill:

Based on our preliminary analysis of this legislation, we are very concerned that it could have serious unintended consequences on a variety of products and will only serve to confuse consumers. GMA agrees with and supports federal laws requiring food labels to be truthful and non-misleading. There is a robust regulatory system in place to ensure the accuracy of information found on a food label. The accuracy of this information is further supported by the ongoing commitment by food companies to communicate with consumers in a way that is clear and accurate.

Whenever the food industry starts showing concern over “consumer confusion”, they usually mean the exact opposite.  If consumers are given too much information about the contents of their unhealthy products, it is likely they will make a different choice, and that terrifies the food industry.  The “serious unintended consequences” the food industry is worried about are their sales.

If implemented, this bill could help create a more accurate picture of what is contained in packaged foods.  Surely some heavy lobbying (and possibly even a media campaign to convince consumers that these changes are harmful) will undoubtedly kill the bill, but it does leave me feeling hopeful.  Proposing this type of legislation brings attention to the issue which is, at minimum, a very good place to start.

Fortified junk food under FDA scrutiny

p10302921

Does junk food fortified with vitamins and minerals mislead consumers into thinking they are making a healthier choice?

vitamins1

The federal government is about to find out.

At long last, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will investigate how easily consumers are fooled into believing that fortified junk food (snack foods and carbonated drinks with vitamins added artificially) can replace real nutritious food.

Initially used to address national public health concerns, the proper use of fortification can be beneficial to consumers.  Since the addition of folic acid in grain-based foods, the rate of neural tube defects has dropped by 25% in the United States.  And the fortification of salt with iodine has drastically reduced iodine deficiency and goiter prevalence.

But, over the last few decades, food manufacturers have managed to exploit the process.

Vitamin C is added to fruit snacks to make the products appear equivalent to whole fruit.  Minimal levels of whole grains are added to crackers just to meet the FDA’s standards for labeling a product as whole grain.   And antioxidants are loaded into soda and other sweetened drinks to distract consumers from the high levels of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and/or artificial sweeteners.  Why do food manufacturers do this? The answer is simple. To confuse and mislead health-conscious consumers so companies can sell more products.

Known as the ‘jelly bean rule’, the FDA actually has a regulation that discourages this type of behavior.  The rule states that just because a product is low in fat, cholesterol, or sodium (like a jelly bean) doesn’t mean the company can place claims on the label touting the healthfulness of the product.

The rule states:

The addition of nutrients to specific foods can be an effective way of maintaining and improving the overall nutritional quality of the food supply.

However, random fortification of foods could result in over- or under-fortification in consumer diets and create nutrient imbalances in the food supply.

It could also result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods.

The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify fresh produce; meat, poultry, or fish products; sugars; or snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages.

As you can see, this rule strongly discourages companies from fortifying foods with nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, protein and fiber for the sole purpose of making health claims.

But, they do it anyway.  Take one look down the aisle of a grocery store and it is pretty obvious that the ‘jelly bean rule’ is seldom enforced.

Slowly but surely, however, consumer health advocates and the FDA are taking notice of the misuse of fortification to sell products.  Over the last few years, several companies have faced expensive class-action lawsuits due to their avoidance of the FDA’s rule.

  • In 2011, Kellogg’s settled a class-action suit after claiming that two of their cereal products, Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies, supported healthy immunity due to the addition of several vitamins.
  • Though a lawsuit was never filed, Hershey’s received a warning letter in 2012 from the FDA for nutritional claims about calcium and other vitamins in their chocolate syrup.
  • And this year, Coca-Cola will be facing a class-action suit for their Vitamin Water products which contain health claims about healthy joints, optimal immune function, and reduced risk for eye disease.  Never mind that the product name alone conveys a message of health despite the fact that the products contain excessive amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners – and not much else.

p10302921

The FDA’s proposed study will use a web-based survey to collect information from 7,500 adults.  Participants will view food labels and answer questions about their perceptions of the products.  With any luck, this research will add to existing data which shows that  consumers are often misled by fortified foods with health claims.  This type of evidence could further lead to stricter policies surrounding the practice, labeling, and marketing of fortified products. But, not without a fight from those powerful food companies.  Like any other type of regulation that prevents Big Food from continuing the status quo, heavy lobbying will ensue.

If you agree with the importance of this study, you can submit comments to the FDA for the next 12 days here.  While it might take awhile before we see any changes, this is certainly a great place to start.