Over the past few years, the Food and Drug Administration, food companies, and food company front groups (like the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association) have spent considerable amounts of time and money tackling the issue of front-of-package nutrition labeling. As you may recall, this January the FMI and GMA banded together to create the “Nutrition Keys”, a small graphic set to appear on the upper right-hand corner of the front package of processed foods, summarizing that product’s nutrition information per serving. The FMI and GMA announced their plan to spend $50 million on
a hyped-up PR blitz an “educational campaign” for the public.
Yesterday, as I perused the aisles of a local supermarket and my eyes were relentlessly attacked with dubious health claims and sneaky nutrition advertising, it hit me — the FDA needs to legally mandate that the Nutrition Facts Label (and ingredient list!) take up exactly half of the front of all food packaging. This move would swiftly take care of many issues:
1. It makes complete nutrition information immediately accessible to all consumers. Heck, give the Nutrition Facts Label a colorful makeover so it really “pops” and consumers might read it before they read any meaningless health claims on the front of a product’s packaging (“6 grams of whole grains per serving!”).
2. By requiring that half of the front-of-package real estate be reserved for a colorful Nutrition Facts label, food companies automatically have less space to work with. There is still plenty of space for a logo, the product’s name, a description of the product (ie: “crunchy rice and wheat flakes with strawberry clusters”), and an accompanying photo or illustration. By the time those components are on the box, there isn’t much room left for unregulated and misleading terms like “lightly sweetened”. Considering that a recent Yale University study found that low-fiber, high-sugar cereals had an average of 3 to 4 health claims on the front of their packaging, the less space food companies have available, the better.
3. It takes away some power from food companies and their front groups. The previously-mentioned Nutrition Keys were heralded as some sort of heroic action by the food companies to help consumers when it is nothing more than using a small corner of the front of a product’s packaging to repeat information already found on the Nutrition Facts Label. If half of a product’s front package contains objective nutrition data, food companies have no choice but to take their hype to the back of the box. I have a feeling that side of their product’s packaging isn’t quite as appealing to them.
Food companies already have multi-million dollar budgets for advertising their products on multiple media platforms; it’s only fair to mandate that the front of food packaging be relegated to objective information.