What’s in a label?

Who would have guessed that nutrition labels could serve as a political football? We are talking about the fine print on the backside of the bags, boxes and cans our food comes in.

Who would have guessed that nutrition labels could serve as a political football? We are talking about the fine print on the backside of the bags, boxes and cans our food comes in.

Now that the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) is trying to introduce a new national food labeling program, politicians and interest groups from all sides jump on the bandwagon, offering their advice how to go about the project.

So far, government officials from twelve states have petitioned the F.D.A. to demand “complete and unbiased nutritional information from food manufacturers, whether good or bad.” This, they say, will empower consumers to make better-informed choices about the foods they purchase. Somebody shout “Amen!”

For quite some time now, food manufacturers and restaurant operators have been pressured on both federal and state level to be more open about the nutritional quality of their products. Yet, we are still far away from any meaningful consensus.

For example, a legislative effort to introduce tougher restrictions on food advertising to children has quickly become stalled in Congress, which makes further progress uncertain. In the meantime, a group of food manufacturers and advertising agencies have tried to come up with their own labeling program, which they proclaim will help fighting childhood obesity. They named it “The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.” Based on certain nutritional criteria, they then began to advertise a number of products as “healthy choices” for children. An official seal of approval was to be awarded for foods and beverages that met the “new” requirements. Surprisingly (or not), the items that made the cut and were certified as “healthy choices,” included sugary cereals, frozen dinners and notoriously fatty fast food items. Even defenders of the campaign admit that the industry could have been more discriminating in its selection.

On the other hand, when Congress asked a number of government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), the Agriculture Department (U.S.D.A.) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), to draw up a set of guidelines for food advertisement to children, their recommendations were quickly dismissed by food manufacturers as “unrealistic.” The Association of National Advertisers said that compliance with those guidelines would “virtually end all food advertising as it’s currently carried out to kids under 18 years of age.” In other words, no deal.

Although I support the new attention nutrition labels are getting from all this back and forth, I seriously doubt that improved label designs will lead to better eating habits on a large scale. In a recent study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers learned that only slightly more than half of American consumers check nutrition labels regularly, and only 44% say that nutritional data and ingredients have any influence on their purchasing decisions.

Statistics like these may be disappointing, but they are to be expected. Nutrition labels in their current form are not user-friendly. In many cases, they are outright misleading. For instance, most of the relevant data, like calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, etc., are measured according to portion sizes – which are often determined arbitrarily.

What we need are radically different ways in which nutritional facts are disclosed and communicated to the public. Most importantly, the product information consumers are given must be more intelligible, truthful and relevant.

If both government agencies and food manufacturers are really interested in combating obesity and improving public health, especially on behalf of children, they will have to do better than simply print new labels. But hey, perhaps it’s a start.

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