It’s been almost 20 years since the nutrition label as we know it was introduced. The intent was to empower consumers to make more informed (read: healthy) purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, the labels have not helped, as America continues to grow, and not in a good way.
While blaming the inadequacy of the nutrition panel is a naive approach to America’s relationship with its food, there are certain oversights or loopholes in the way packaged food information is provided to consumers today. For example, health claims or nutrient claims, which appear in large font on the front of package, embellish one positive trait, say “low-fat”. The nutritional cost may be a product high in sugar content as compensation. But such details appear in the side panel (the nutrition label is never up front), and consumers don’t always bother to check.
We’ve compiled a list of improvements that can make labels and packaging even more informative, hopefully providing consumers with better tools to make a decision. Consumers will benefit from increased transparency of nutrition and ingredient information.
Here then, is the list. comments and additional suggestions are welcome.
1. Real serving size. Have you ever stopped at 2 Oreo cookies? Or 11 potato chips? Well, those are the serving sizes as defined by the manufacturer. We all know that in some cases, the real serving size is whatever’s in that bag of pretzels, so at a minimum, how about providing nutrition information for an entire package as well?
2. How much sugar? Currently there is no FDA defined level of maximum daily consumption for calculation and display on the nutrition label. Dietitians recommend at most 125 grams of total sugar per day as the upper limit. That works out to 8 tablespoons per day. It would be nice to know that Golden Grahams takes care of the first one. Additionally, it would be nice to know that 35% of Golden Grahams is sugar. Don’t look surprised, some cereals are over 50% sugar by weight!
3. How much added sugar? The nutrition label states the amount of total sugar in a serving, but it does not indicate whether the sugar is added to the food or occurs naturally. Caloric-ly, there is no difference between table sugar and sugar found naturally in fruits and vegetables. But the benefit of fruits containing naturally occurring sugars is in the additional vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals they provide. Added sugars provide no health benefits. They are truly empty calories. Today, consumers can only guess how much sugar is added.
4. Front of Package Labeling. Marketing and health claims have recently been augmented with stars, check marks and nutrition scores all designed to simplify nutrition choices for the consumer. This has resulted in a tower of babel of simplified nutrition logos. This cacophony of FOP labels, designed by individual food manufacturers, supermarkets or organizations, just adds to consumer confusion. In the first three weeks of 2009, 4 different logos were introduced! (Sara Lee – Nutritional Spotlight, Stop & Shop – Healthy Ideas, SuperValu – NutritionIQ, United Supermarket – TAG Nutrition Labeling). A single standardized format for front of package (FOP) nutrition information labeling would undoubtfully help. It seems that the FDA is the only organization that can get everyone to agree on one standard (Congress drafts a law…).
5. Trans-fat: Zero should be zero. Did you know that if a serving has less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat, then it could be labeled as “0 trans-fat”? This is ridiculous. Serving sizes can be “calibrated” to be just under half a gram’s worth of trans-fat and win the zero mark. But when wolfing down a snack bag (real serving size much larger than labeled – see point 1#1), you could be getting even 1.25 grams of trans-fat, all while thinking that the product contains none at all.
6. Improved ingredient list. The ingredient list should include not just a list of each ingredient, but its ratio in the product out of 100%. For example, Cap’n Crunch would read: Corn Flour [35%], Sugar [23%], oat flour [21%], brown sugar [20%], etc… This would give consumers a better idea of what they are really getting. No more fruit treats with only 3% blueberries.
7. Highlight controversial ingredients. The FDA recognizes 2 types of ingredients, safe and not safe. Reality is more complicated, with many items somewhere in the middle, usually because the FDA feels science has not made up its mind regarding their safety or danger levels. But instead of erring to consumer’s safety, the FDA sometimes rushes to approve ingredients at the urging of industry. Other ingredients have been around for so long that they are by default “safe”. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, for example, contain dangerous trans-fats. Yet they are a frequent ingredient of various foods in the supermarket. Highlight them! Food coloring, another example, has been debated for ages. Some food colorings have been banned, but others, such as Yellow #5, are GRAS (generally recognized as safe). This, despite substantial and troubling research indicating otherwise. By highlighting these ingredients in the ingredient list, consumers will b able to discern at a glance whether a product is acceptable for them or not.
8. No more qualified health claims. We wrote about this recently. The FDA allows manufacturers to plaster health claims on products based on sound scientific evidence. But in the past few years, even limited research has become acceptable, as long as the claim is then qualified with tiny mouse print at the bottom of the package. This does not serve consumers’ best interest and creates a false halo of health where it should not.
9. Labels for unpackaged foods. While the ingredient list would be short (carrot, beef ribs, pear, etc…), by using shelfside nutrition information for produce and meats, consumers can educate themselves on which products provide which vitamins and minerals. Some supermarkets are providing this kind of information already, but there is no uniformity.
10. Caffeine content. Products that contain caffeine should clearly state the amount. People are often surprised to discover caffeine in soft drinks, cakes, and other snack items. Physicians have asked the FDA to require labeling on energy drinks.
11. Better allergy and intolerance info. More than 30 Millions Americans suffer from some sort of allergy or food intolerance. Clearly marking and highlighting this information on a product package could be a lifesaver. The FDA is working on this.
12. Country of origin information. In today’s global village, a single product could be manufactured with tens of ingredients sourced from around the globe. It would be helpful to know where the substantial ingredients came from. Just recently gone into effect is the USDA COOL law which covers a very small number of unprocessed meat products. COOL should be FOOL (found on other labels) too.
13. Specificity. Natural flavors? Artificial flavors? Can someone please tell people what these are? Be more specific. Same idea for ingredients such as vegetable oil. Is it so hard to tell a shopper if a manufacturer used sunflower or canola oil?
14. Label Booz. Alcoholic beverages should be labeled as well. At a bare minimum, provide serving size and calories.
15. GE/GM Info. Genetically engineered or modified ? The scientific jury may be out on this one, but many consumers do not want to eat genetically altered products if they don’t have to. A simple indication when the product has more than 5% GM/GE products is a good start. A detailed solution, such as italicizing each GM/GE ingredient, can provide more insight for shoppers.
If you’ve managed to read this far into the list, kudos. You’re probably wondering how all the added information can fit on the small nutrition panel of a Snickers bar or can of Pepsi. This is a challenge. Too much clutter will detract, not add to the product evaluation process by a consumer. And get the font size any smaller, everyone will need to visit their optometrist.
Therefore our last suggestion is:
16. Use Tech. Each product should have a link to a unique web page on the manufacturer website, where more detailed information can be provided. Obviously, this is not a real time solution for most consumers today, but it is in the spirit of transparency. And in coming years, we’ll have the ability to get this information, while at the supermarket, from our mobile phones, at the click of a button.
To sum things up, basically we’re asking food manufacturers and supermarkets to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
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