Regulating Front-of-Package Nutrition Labels, Part 1 of 3: Better Enforcement of Existing Standards

This is a guest blog-post by  Professor Timothy D. Lytton

At the top of the FDA’s agenda for 2010 is regulating front-of-package nutrition labels.

Proponents of symbols like the Heart Check mark and the Smart Choices logo and rating systems like Guiding Stars and NuVal argue that they offer a quick way to help consumers identify foods that contribute to a healthy diet. Critics allege that the labeling schemes are confusing and misleading and have called for stricter government regulation. The Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) recently released a report advocating that the FDA to develop a uniform, mandatory front-of-package labeling system.

But before the FDA gets into the business of creating its own front-of-package labeling scheme, it should first consider how existing regulations could be used to clamp down on misleading front-of-package labeling information. Better use of existing regulations would be a prudent first step in reigning in the current front-of-package free-for-all.

The FDA has promulgated extensive regulations governing the use of nutrient content claims on food labels—claims describe the level of a nutrient in a food. FDA regulations distinguish several different categories of nutrient content claims, and most front-of-package nutrition labels fall into one of three categories.

1. Simple Quantitative Statements: The Nutrition Highlights Panel

Some front-of-package nutrition labels present nutrient information in the form of simple quantitative statements concerning the amount of one or more nutrients in the food. General Mills’ Nutrition Highlights panel is an example of this type of label.

Existing FDA regulations allow for simple quantitative statements provided that they are accurate.

2. Rating Individual Nutrients: The Traffic Light Label

A second type of front-of-package nutrition label rates the level of individual nutrients on a scale. The British Food Standards Agency (FSA) traffic light label provides an example.

Under FDA regulations, any label claim that employs descriptive terms to characterize the level of a nutrient, such as “low in sodium” or “high in fiber,” may be made only for nutrients for which FDA has established a Daily Value (DV), may be used only if the food meets specified threshold requirements for the nutrient, and may employ only descriptive terms approved by the FDA. For example, a tub of yoghurt labeled “high in calcium” must contain at least twenty percent of the DV of calcium per 225 grams of yoghurt. Any front-of-package label that rates individual nutrients must conform to these strict guidelines. (Note: A daily value for sugar has not been established by the FDA.)

3. Seals of Approval: The Heart Check Mark & The Smart Choices Logo

A third type of front-of-package nutrition label combines analysis of nutrients to suggest that a food satisfies some minimum standard of overall nutritional value, such that it contributes to a healthy diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) Heart Check mark is an example.

The AHA explains on its website that the underlying nutrient criteria for the label are based on the Association’s dietary recommendations which it explains are consistent with federal dietary guidelines and health recommendations. The mark is intended to convey that a food is of high nutritional value by these standards.

Symbols like the Heart Check mark are functionally equivalent to label claims that a food is “healthy.” Under FDA regulations, foods labeled “healthy,” or any derivative of the term such as “healthier” or “healthful,” must not exceed specific thresholds of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol and must contain requisite amounts of other nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, and fiber, depending upon the food. “[T]he purpose of the ‘healthy’ claim,” explains the FDA, “is to highlight those foods that, based on their nutrient levels, are particularly useful in constructing a diet that conforms to current dietary guidelines.” This is precisely what symbols like the Heart Check mark are intended to convey, and this is how consumers understand them. They should, therefore, be required to meet FDA standards for “healthy” claims.

Some front-of-package nutrition labels place symbols of approval on products within a food category that have comparatively better overall nutritional value, although they may be foods of low nutritional value. The symbol is meant to indicate not that a food is healthy in the absolute sense but merely healthier in a relative sense. For example, the Smart Choices logo has appeared on cereals such as Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops based on their relatively lower sugar content when compared to other highly-sweetened children’s cereals.

FDA regulations prohibit this type of relative healthy claim, explaining that,

“[t]he usefulness of a food labeled ‘healthy’ is not based on how it compares to a similar food, but on how it contributes to achieving a total diet consistent with dietary recommendations.”

Foods that are healthy only in a relative sense do not contribute to a total diet consistent with dietary recommendations and are, therefore, misleading. Under existing FDA regulations, front-of-package labeling schemes that make this type of relative “healthier” claim should be prohibited.

In a subsequent post, I will address how the FDA could further develop its regulations governing the use of healthy claims to regulate more complex front-of-package labels that rate the overall nutritional value of foods.

Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert and Angela Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School where he teaches regulatory law & policy, constitutional law, administrative law, and tort law. His article “Signs of Change or Clash of Symbols? FDA Regulation of Nutrient Profile Labeling” (forthcoming in Health Matrix, vol. 19, no. 2) is available online by clicking here. He is also working on an article about regulation of nutrition standards for school food. For more information, visit his Albany Law School faculty website.

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