Honest Nutrition Labels: Can They Exist?

Last week, the FDA and First Lady, Michelle Obama, proposed several changes to the Nutrition Facts label. It will likely take several years before these changes are put into place, but it is a great place to start.

New-Nutrition-Label-Infographic-Main

Here are some highlights:

1. Calories will be listed more prominently and in a larger font size, making them easier to find.
2. Serving sizes will be adjusted to more accurately depict what is eaten in one sitting. For instance, a 20 oz. soda will be considered 1 serving, as opposed to 2.5, which has been the case in the past.
3. Calories from fat will no longer be listed, allowing us to focus more on types of fat to be avoided (trans fat) rather than fat as a whole.  Science has shown that dietary fat is not the demon it was once made out to be.
4. Added sugars will now be listed. This is a great addition; one that health advocates have been wanting for a long time, and the food industry will likely try to refute. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we consume less added sugars, but the current food label doesn’t indicate the number of sugars added to foods, only the total grams. This makes determining how much refined sugar the food industry is adding into products very challenging for consumers, especially for foods that contain natural sugars like fruit and dairy products.
5. Vitamin D and Potassium information will now be listed, and listing Vitamin A and C will be voluntary . Vitamin D and Potassium have higher deficiency rates for Americans, making this an important addition.
6. Recommended Daily Values for sodium will go down from 2400 milligrams to 2300, and will go up for fiber from 25 grams to 30. These numbers are being adjusted to better represent what we have learned in the past 20 years about how much we should consume of each of these nutrients.

While these changes are important, and will hopefully help consumers to make healthier food choices, there are many more improvements that could still be made. In fact, the FDA proposed an alternate label that has received much less press.

Nutrition-Labels_Gray_t670

In addition to the other changes mentioned, this alternate label also provides information about which nutrients to avoid (trans fat, sodium, added sugars) and which to get more of (vitamin D, fiber, calcium). This label comes much closer to labels advocates have been proposing, such as this label designed by Center for Science in the Public Interest:

Nutrition-Facts-Suggested

A Nutrition Facts label, such as this, is clearly designed to help consumers make healthier decisions. Of course, the food industry is not in favor of these labels as they might paint a negative picture of their products. Proof of this, is the $50 million they are spending to promote their own voluntary package label, called Facts Up Front.

GMAFMI

The industry calls Facts Up Front “a tool” to help consumers, but as is no surprise, it really just continues to serve the industry’s best interest by allowing companies to highlight positive attributes of a product, without having to warn them about anything negative. Plus, it is confusing. Is 14 grams of sugar a lot or a little? The fiber is high, but so is the saturated fat. Is it healthy or not? This type of labeling also encourages fortification (adding positive nutrients like vitamins and fiber) to make unhealthy products seem more healthy.

Evidence of the confusion over Facts Up Front is further proven in this video from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University:


Despite what the food industry will tell you, consumers clearly aren’t learning much about nutrition from “Facts Up Front.” On the contrary, it will likely continue to cause consumers to choose highly processed, cheaply made junk food that appears healthy — just what the industry wants.

These industry efforts are quite contradictory to their consistent claims that eating well is all about “personal responsibility.” How can consumers eat responsibly if they aren’t receiving clear and honest information?

What do you think? Would any of these labels help you to make healthier choices?

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.