Two of the most respected and independent experts on nutrition have published an editorial article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) calling for the ban of front of package nutrition labels and health claims. The paper, entitled Front-of-Package Food Labels Public Health or Propaganda? [download PDF] is coauthored by Marion Nestle, a professor at NYU, and professor David Ludwig of Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
In the editorial, the authors review the history of health claims, the relationship between the food industry, Congress, and the FDA, and the big mess we are in today. They provide five reasons why front-of-pack labeling, instead of providing a useful service to consumers, has actually done the opposite:
1. Health claims cannot be easily verified. But people perceive them as absolute truths approved by governmental health bodies.
2. Claims about specific positive nutritional benefits are misleading. Cereals “fortified with vitamins and minerals” but full of sugar come to mind as one example.
3. Singling out a specific nutrient is misleading. A can of Coke has less fat than a handful of nuts. Which is better?
4. “Healthier” is not necessarily healthy. So a junk food with “Now 20% less sugar” is still junk food.
5. Inherent conflict of interest between wanting to sell more products and wanting to educate the public.
The authors add that only strict regulation, based on scientific standards, can assure trustworthy labeling. But because the standards are easily manipulated and in many cases the science is inconclusive, the best solution is to just kill off the front of pack labeling. They admit that this may pose 1st Amendment challenges, and suggest that the FDA and Congress deal with the issue through legal remedies.
In the meantime, improvements in the existing nutrition facts panel can help consumers make smarter choices. We agree, and have a laundry list of suggestions.
What to do at the supermarket:
It’s usually the “silent” products that are healthier for you – the fresh fruit and vegetables that don’t have nutrition information, and the bulk items like nuts and seeds, etc…They don’t have sexy packaging or big marketing budgets.
As a rule, when buying packaged foods, ignore the health claims and go directly to the ingredient list and nutrition fact panel. True, it’s harder to read, requires some learning to master, and is more time consuming. But it will give you a fuller picture of the product, not just what the manufacturer wants you to know.
And if you have any questions, Fooducate is here for you.
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