Nutrition Experts: Five Reasons to Kill Front-of-Package Food Labels

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.

New! Choose a better breakfast with CerealScan™ by Fooducate

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  • helene billiet

    I think you’re absolutely right when you say that we should read the ingredient list instead of focusing on the message given by the manufacturer.
    Lyon City Blog

  • Rebecca

    I agree that the front of the box can be misleading, but I still believe that the responsiblity falls on the person buying just as much as if falls on the business selling.

    Like buying a car, you do your research and ask questions. People should do that as well when putting something into their bodies or their children’s bodies.

    Let’s stop blaming and start taking responsibility. Nobody is forcing anyone to purchase a box of cereal. If you can read, you should be able to make INFORMED decisions based on ingredient contents, research and COMMON SENSE.

    Money should be spent bettering people, encouraging them to be responsible and smart and not on making more government based rules that will slowly take all our rights away.

    Just my opinion. :)

  • Bill

    One of the best things I read recently was “Real food doesn’t have nutritional info on it”. I can see putting information on the front of lactose free milk but that’s something that’s proven. If companies can’t prove their product does something it shouldn’t be on any part of the packaging.

  • HealthfulMe

    Good post. I like the phrase that junk food with 20% less sugar is still junk food. Taking the time to read nutritional labels is an investment in your health. Once you get into the habit it becomes pretty easy (just be sure you have your reading glasses if you are my age!). Take note of the order of the ingredients listed — that’s the relative amount of each in the product. Look at not just calories & fat but type of fat, protein count, fiber and sugars. If you’re watching your cholesterol look at that count on any food with a nutrition label. There are some good foods that are fortified with healthy ingredients; add these to your lean proteins, fruits, vegs & legumes & you’ll make progress on your health goals!

  • TwinToddlersDad

    I think “killing” or banning front of box labeling is an insane idea!

    Front of box labeling has less to do with nutrition but more to do with creating a differentiation in the eyes of the customer. The purpose of this differentiation is to encourage purchase. Pure and simple.

    Now, it is not only the text of the labels that creates a differentiation but also the imagery, size and shape of the box and color scheme. I suppose, we should “kill” all of that and force food manufacturers to sell their products in plain, colorless, uniform size boxes? I don’t think that is such a good idea.

    Experts say that front of box labels are misleading. I don’t believe that consumers are easily mislead, and even if they are, those products will not survive in the long run.

    Front of the box labeling is not perfect. Nutrition facts panel, despite being information rich, is not perfect. I don’t believe there is a perfect solution in the first place.

    Rather than banning or killing things, let the customers decide and vote with their wallets.

  • Editorial Staff

    Your logical progression makes sense when I read it through. Except that consumers ARE mislead in many cases and therefore cannot make a sound decision. Most consumers don’t understand enough about nutrition to be able to figure out where they are being had. Here are some simple examples I was not aware of until I started Fooducate:
    1. is 13g sugar in a cereal a lot or a little?
    2. should I choose the canola oil that is cholesterol free or the regular one?
    3. should I pay a premium for probiotic yogurt?

    I don’t think the authors in the article expect banning front of pack labeling, just tighter regulation about what can be claimed.