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.
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One thought on “A Face-Lift for Food Labels

  1. Wow! I was so pumped about this until you got to the punchline: it probably won’t pass. I can’t believe there’s caffeine in random foods! But building awareness is a great start :-)

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