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  • Why The Nutrition Facts Label Belongs on the Front of All Food Packaging

    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.

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    2 Comments

    1. Seth said on April 13th, 2011

      Hi Andy, I’m a fan of the Small Bites blog and your work in general, but I think there are too many problems with an FOP takeover. The most obvious problem is, couldn’t packagers put the Nutrition Facts and all the other government-required FOP info on one side, and then make the back side more graphical so that retailers will display the back as the new front? (Could cube-shaped packaging be the next ‘innovation’ to thwart FOP reform?) And even if half of an FOP is taken up by Nutrition Facts (and Ingredients?), that leaves packagers with another whole 50% of the real estate, which is more than enough to do damage, especially if many consumers look at the Nutrition Facts like hieroglyphics anyway? Other problems with half-size front-facing labels are that they couldn’t apply the same way to very small packages (the kind where the entire back side is already Nutrition Facts), and color shading is an unfair burden to those companies who print packaging in fewer colors to save money (assuming that in matters of public health it’s not right to exempt smaller companies from the rules).

      I think a better approach would be two-pronged: clean up the existing label system and ban certain other claims from FOP. Changes to the label could include % Calories from Fat instead of Calories from Fat, and how about some more reasonable and standard serving sizes for some types of food? For the FOP, we already regulate lots of words, so how about rules like no “may” statements (if a food may do something for your health then it also may not–this one is a no-brainer to me); no comparatives allowed when the other thing being compared isn’t clear; no claims about the food being part of a healthy balanced diet (which is just their way of saying everything else you eat needs to be healthy); sources have to be referenced with a web link when a scientific claim is made; and the list could go on.

      Oh, and of all the labeling gripes, “lightly sweet(ened)” is really more of a subjective taste statement than an actual health claim.

    2. Andy Bellatti said on April 22nd, 2011

      Seth,

      Thanks for your comments and insight. My responses to some of your statements:

      1. The idea is that what is currently the front will remain as the front. Meaning, if companies jazz up the back of a box, that’s not what would be displayed to consumers.
      2. Granted, I am not saying this idea is fool-proof. You are right, this still leaves 50% of the front of a box for food companies to “do damage”… but that is a significant reduction from the current 100%.
      3. And, yes, you run into problems with very small packages. But, my main concerns here are big-box items like cereals, Pop-Tarts, frozen dinners, crackers, cookies, etc.
      4. As far as coloring — I am not asking for an array of colors. Even something like a bright border, or at least the words “Nutrition Facts” in a bold color that stands out would be sufficient. The entire label does not need to resemble a rainbow.
      5. “% Calories from Fat”, to me, is a moot point. Ok, so 75% of the calories in a serving of almonds are from fat. What does that information tell me? Not much. Similarly, let’s say that the serving of almonds contains 14 grams of fat. If you then take a product (say, a frozen dinner) that contains 700 calories and 28 grams of fat, the % of calories from fat would be lower than the almonds’, but the total amount is not. I use that example to show why “percent of calories from fat” is meaningless information.
      6. Your ideas about allowances to FOP claims are good — I especially like what you say about “part of a healthy and balanced diet” (a most ludicrous claim if I ever heard one).
      7. I see what you mean about “lightly sweetened” being more of a taste statement than a health claim. However, my issue with “lightly sweetened” is that it inherently suggests a low amount of sugar, when that is not the case.

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