The Institute of Medicine released a report last week on front-of-package food labeling and rating systems. In contrast to the typical front-of-package health claim advertising that currently exists (for example, when an unhealthy sugar-cereal highlights a “goodness corner” or “healthy check-mark” to trick kids and parents into thinking the cereal is a health food because it’s enriched with some vitamins (see top of the Cookie Crisp box), the IOM recommends objective health data and warning labels to emphasize potentially harmful nutrients, such as high levels of sugars, fats, and calories. Read the New York Times article describing the study here.
Group Seeks Food Label That Highlights Harmful Nutrients
New York Times, October 13, 2010
Tell us how your products are bad for us.
That is the message to the food industry from a team of health specialists who said Wednesday in a report that easy-to-grasp nutrition information on the front of food packages should focus on the nutrients most responsible for obesity and chronic diseases: calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
The report, from the Institute of Medicine, is meant to help Congress and the Food and Drug Administration decide what to do about the proliferation of certain labeling practices that food companies and retailers use to promote the nutritional aspects of food products.
Many of the methods, often accompanied by checkmarks or snappy logos, have been criticized for trumpeting the beneficial aspects of packaged foods, like vitamins or fiber content, while ignoring less appealing ones, like high sodium or sugar levels. That has led to labels for sugary cereals or salt-laden frozen dinners that indicate they are healthy food choices.
The report suggests a package-front label that would essentially do the opposite. It called for the label to emphasize the potentially harmful nutrients in the food product — for example, those that promote obesity, diabetes or heart disease — and exclude information about beneficial nutrients, like fiber or vitamins.
That was partly to avoid a mixed message and partly because including information about positive ingredients could encourage food companies to unnecessarily fortify foods with nutrients to score better in the labeling system, the report said.
“What we’re suggesting is that food products be labeled in a consistent way with information that will help the general public decrease their risk for chronic diseases and this is the type of information that is unlikely to currently appear on the front of the package,” said Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and vice chairwoman of the institute committee that prepared the report.
The F.D.A. is developing a proposal for standardizing nutrition labeling on the front of food packages that is intended to replace other industry programs. The agency hopes companies will voluntarily adopt its labeling system, although it has yet to provide details of what that system will entail.
The agency has said that nutrition labels on the front of packages should give consumers a summary of significant dietary information and that they are not meant to replace the more detailed panel on the back or side.
The report, which offered preliminary findings, will be followed next year by a second study that will include formal recommendations.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, said that because the nutrition information that companies currently provide on package fronts is intended to help sell products, it emphasizes healthy nutrients that consumers want in their foods, like fiber or whole grains. For that reason, she said, the food industry would not be likely to embrace a system that focused only on nutrients that most people wanted to avoid.
“All of this is about food industry marketing,” she said. “If it weren’t about marketing, all this stuff would go off the packages and we would go back to packages that just said what the products were.”
A glimpse at industry reaction to the institute report was provided during a conference call in which members of the report committee answered questions from the news media and food company executives.
On the call, Vivian Tseng, general counsel and a vice president of Welch Foods Inc., the juice company, asked if the committee “has considered some other message that would be more affirmative than negative.”
Frances H. Seligson, a former Hershey executive on the committee, answered that there were other ways that companies could make claims about the healthy aspects of their products.
Scott Faber, a vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group, said in an interview that the industry has been in discussions with the F.D.A. as it develops its recommendations. “Providing consumers with more nutritional information is an essential ingredient of building a healthy diet,” Mr. Faber said.
The F.D.A. said in a statement that package-front labeling should give consumers “key nutrition information to make healthful food choices.”