Food Industry Under Pressure? New Recommendations for Food Labeling

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Yesterday, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published the second part of its recommendations pertaining to Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labels (FOP). Front of pack labels are an addition to the nutrition labels on the back or side panels of food products. The idea is to simplify the information to a point where it is actually helpful for a consumer trying to make a decision based on nutrition.

The IOM, a scientific advisory board to the federal government, recommends showing a minimal amount of information:

  • Show 0 to 3 star rating (3 is best)
  • Rating based on presence (or absence) of 4 nutrients to limit: Saturate Fat, Trans-Fat, Sodium, Added Sugar
  • Show calories per serving
  • Show serving size in household units (not grams or ounces, rather cups, cookies, teaspoons, etc…)
  • The labeling should appear on ALL products in a supermarket, to create uniformity and clarity.

According to the IOM:

It is time for a move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.

The report recommends that the Food and Drug Administration develop, test, and implement a single, standard FOP symbol system to appear on all food and beverage products, in place of other systems already in use.

The symbol system should show calories in household servings on all products.

Foods and beverages should be evaluated using a point system for saturated andtrans fats and sodium, and added sugars. The more points a food or beverage has, the healthier it is. This system would encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare and consumers to quickly and easily find healthier products when they shop.

As expected, many food companies oppose this measure vehemently. Why focus on the negative, which would only discourage sales? The industry would much rather “enlighten” consumers by pointing out the positive. Minutes after the IOM announcement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) issued its own press release (side note: how in the world did they know all the details? was there someone on the inside leaking the info?):

The IOM report adds a perspective to the national dialogue about front-of-pack nutrition labeling. In the meantime, food and beverage companies have developed a real-world program that delivers real value to real consumers in real time.

Consumers have told us that they want simple and easy to use information and that they should be trusted to make decisions for themselves and their families. The most effective programs are those that consumers embrace, and consumers have said repeatedly that they want to make their own judgments, rather than have government tell them what they should and should not eat…

How not surprising.

Interesting to note:

1. Under the IOM’s recommendations, fortified junk foods will still receive low ratings. No more “healthifying” by adding synthetic vitamins to a cookie.

2. Sugar discrepancy: Added sugars are addressed in the FOP suggestion, whereas the nutrition label in the back panel only displays total sugars. Consumers deserve to know how the total sugar count breaks down in a product. Knowing that your yogurt is composed of 3 tsp of naturally occurring sugar but then another 3 tsp of added sugars may encourage you to buy unflavored yogurt and sweeten it yourself (with 1 tsp, we hope).

What you need to know:

Oh the sheer idiocy of it all. This is another phase in the cat and mouse game of government regulation.

More than 20 years ago, the food lobbies fought hard against an standardized FDA mandated nutrition facts label. They weren’t able to stop it, but they made sure to handicap it so much as to make it virtually useless to most consumers. Not to mention ingredient lists that nobody understands.

As a result of consumer confusion, some brands created simplified notations to place on the front of their package, mostly to assure a consumer that their product was indeed healthy. You will never see a FOP saying something negative about a product.

Several third parties created their own systems for placement on supermarket shelf tags, notably NuVal and Guiding Stars. It started getting very confusing when multiple systems could be encountered by a shopper in a single grocery store visit. In the last year a slough of mobile apps for rating foods have also emerged (Shameless plug: the Fooducate app is the most downloaded and comprehensive food/nutrition rating service available today). If you want some more background on nutrition labeling, we keep an updated timeline right over here.

It makes sense to create uniformity. The industry, feeling the heat, recently came up with Facts Up Front. It is a preemptive move no doubt, to avoid FDA mandated labeling.

So will the FDA accept the IOM’s recommendations? We highly doubt it. You see, in the regulatory cat and mouse game, the mice are infinitely more resourceful than the cats, just like the Itchy and Scratchy show. At best, a very useless and watered down version of the IOM recommendations will be adopted.

What to do in the supermarket:

IGNORE front of pack labeling. It will never ever tell you why you should not buy a product. Educate yourself on nutrition labels and ingredient lists. or Fooducate yourself with our free apps.

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  • CT

    “Minutes after the IOM announcement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) issued its own press release (side note: how in the world did they know all the details? was there someone on the inside leaking the info?)” 

    Oh, conspiracy theorists!  Have you read the GMA press release?  They don’t talk about any details of the IOM labeling scheme.  The press release came out immediately after the IOM announcement, and, as you might expect, it is rather general — I can’t find anything in there that indicates pre-awareness of the IOM scheme — no leaked info here!

    However, CSPI also came out with a press release ( immediately after the IOM announcement too.  And, in that case, they are very specific about the characteristics of the IOM label scheme.  If anything was “leaked” in advance to anyone, it wasn’t leaked to the food industry — is was leaked to consumer groups who favor a mandatory government-enforced FOP scheme! 

  • Malmedia

    I don’t realy care for the idea of symbols. You would still have to educate yourself at to what the symbols mean. If, for example, te government think I am important enough to them to make sure the food makers let me know how much sugar is natural and how much is added they should just require an Added Sugar line to the nutrition facts. If they want to distiguish between which lines are good, bad, or neutral in regards to healh and nutrition they could use Green, Yellow, Red text.
    In regards to serving sizes, I actually think they way it is now if OK. But what might things easier is if their was a more universal measurement in addition to the serving size. For example have everything that makes sense to have say how many servings per Cup as well. So even if a serving of Nuts is say 28G or 1oz, tell me how many servings in 1 Cup. And even if a serving of Corn Starch is 1 tsp or 8G tell me how many servings in 1 Cup. Because I know about how much a cup of something is. Or at least I am very likely to have something in the kitchen that I can use to measure 1 Cup.
    One thing I with they would require are more specific vitamins and minerals. And it might be nice to require that the government care enough about me and my family to also require things that the food growers and makers use in such as specific pesticides, hormones, anti-biotics, as well as other poisons such as arsenic. But at least at this point if I buy something labled organic I have a little better idea of what is or is not in what I am buying.
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  • Shannoncolerd

    All you need to do is read the ingredients. If you see a name that is unfamiliar and is not food, don’t eat it!

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