There is a battle brewing in the US over “front of package” claims about the healthfulness of foods. Growing debates over the clarity, complexity, and truthfulness of industry claims about food products has led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to announce this week that they are seeking public input on ways to “enhance the usefulness to consumers of point-of-purchase nutrition information.”
Just to be clear, this is not the information contained in the nutrition box on the side of food products (which have issues of their own). The FDA is interested now in evaluating the information that companies put on the front of their packaging or on shelf-tags in stores – such as claims of “Contains Essential Nutrients”, “All Natural”, “Contains Anti-Oxidants”, “Helps Boost your Immune System”, “Helps Lower Your Cholesterol”, “0 Grams Trans Fat”, or symbols such as the “Smart Choices” check mark.
As Marion Nestle and David Ludwig point out in a recent article in JAMA, “Three
types of claims — nutrient-content, health, and structure/function — proliferated on food products” over the last 10 years. They go on that:
Another type of food labeling, endorsements of nutritional quality, began to appear in 1995, with the American Heart Association’s symbol indicating heart-healthy products low in total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. More recently, PepsiCo, Kraft, and other companies developed self-endorsement labeling systems, and General Mills introduced nutrition-at-a-glance symbols.
Their concern with front-of-package claims is that:
Health claims demonstrably promote sales. But do they promote health? Research suggests that consumers believe front-of-package claims, perceive them to be government-endorsed, and use them to ignore the Nutrition Facts Panel. Indeed, current practices may mislead the public in several ways.
The FDA says they are interested now in assessing:
- The extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand nutrition symbols;
- The effectiveness of possible approaches to front-of-pack labeling;
- Graphic design, marketing, and advertising data that guide the development of better point-of-purchase nutrition information; and,
- The extent to which point-of-purchase nutrition information may affect decisions by food manufacturers to reformulate products.
As the FDA explains:
The goal of this front-of-pack nutrition labeling effort is to maximize the number of consumers who readily notice, understand, and use point-of-purchase information to make more nutritious choices for themselves and their families.
So here is the question for you (and me) as consumers. What information do you want on the front of food packages? Standardized protocols from the FDA on what manufacturers can say regarding beneficial health claims, and what they must admit regarding sugar, salt, fat, cholesterol, etc.? Or perhaps a simple red-yellow-green traffic light system as they are developing in Europe? Or perhaps instead a ban on all front-of-package claims?
Let us know, and then tell the FDA by July 28, 2010.