In the last few years you probably noticed an increase in the amount of nutritional information on the front of food packaging. This includes graphics saying “all natural” or “better for you.” Others list the amount of sugar, fiber, and fat in the product. Others are endorsements by a health organization. These front-of-pack labels or “FOP” labels are at the center of a controversy that’s pitting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) against food manufacturers and associations.
Currently the FDA doesn’t regulate Front of Pack labeling, but they are in the process of attempting to develop standards for them which are now defined by each company or organization.
The federal government became concerned about FOP labeling as their use exploded and the labels became increasingly misleading. With different label criteria and label formats from each company, consumers were bombarded with different and often incomplete information. For example, manufactures can tout “sugar-free” or “all natural” for a food that is loaded with saturated fat and virtually no other redeeming nutrients. In essence, foods can be made to appear healthier than they really are.
Last year the Centers for Disease Control along with the FDA asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to step in and review the labeling in use, make recommendations on how to clean up the mess and suggest a standard FOP scheme.
In anticipation of the coming standards, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute developed the Nutrition Keys or “Facts Up Front” system. It consists of at least four basic icons for calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars per serving. An optional format includes two “nutrients to encourage” (potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium and iron). All of these are either shortfall nutrients or are required to be on the nutrition facts panel. This scheme is already in use now and some charge this was a deliberate attempt to undermine the impending IOM recommendations.
“Facts Up Front” FOP labeling system developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute.
Institute of Medicine Recommendations
Just last month the IOM released the second of two reports which contains their recommendations that any FDA approved FOP scheme:
- Prominently display all information based on serving size
- Include calories per serving
- In addition to calories, allow only three other items in any front-of-package evaluation scheme: 1) saturated and trans fat, 2) sodium and 3) sugars.
- Adopt a point system to evaluate food products based on the levels of those three items. Their sample design uses stars to signify points. The more stars a product has, the better it is for you.
The IOM says their recommendations focus on helping consumers make healthy food choices that address Americans biggest health challenges: obesity, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. The rating system is a fundamental--and some say courageous--change for the FDA. Until now the FDA only provided nutrition facts and left it up to the consumer to interpret that information.
Sample of system proposed by the Institute of Medicine.
The food industry favors their “Facts-up-Front” label as it contains information from the Nutrition Facts label already regulated by the FDA. They oppose any scheme, such as that recommended by the IOM, which includes a rating system. The industry cites its own surveys that indicate consumers don’t want to be told by the government what to eat. They also believe that a system that uses interpretive symbols that rate criteria negatively, but do not include positive criteria are inherently unfair and misleading.
Great Britain’s FOP Labels
In case you’re wondering how are neighbors across the pond are handling this controversy, Great Britain FOP labels use a “traffic light” scheme. It rates products based on four criteria: total fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt per serving. (It does not include calories.) Each criterion is color coded red, yellow, or green to indicate if the amount in the product is too low or high. For example, if the amount of sugar is high by their regulatory standards, the sugar symbol is red.
“Traffic light” FOP system used in Great Britain
Whether consumers will use the information to improve their diets is another matter. According to data from the independent research group HealthFocus, nearly half of American shoppers say they would like to see calories, saturated fat, sodium and trans fat clearly labeled on food packaging to help them avoid unhealthy products. However, they found that only 36 percent of obese shoppers read on-pack nutritional information compared to 55 percent of shoppers overall, and obese shoppers were less likely to say that they paid attention to their diet.
Grocery Manufacturers Association
Facts Up Front