The FDA (Sort of) Approves Industry’s Front of Pack Nutrition Label

Food Navigator reports that the FDA is supporting the food industry’s rollout of the Facts Up Front nutrition labeling scheme (formerly known as Nutrition Keys).  This front of pack (FOP) system was seen by many, including Fooducate, as a preemptive move to undercut federal initiatives. The initiative, sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, was launched with a $50 million marketing campaign to “educate consumers”.

The label itself includes 4 mandatory pieces of information, per serving:

  • Calories
  • Amount of saturated fat and in small font the percentage of daily value
  • Amount of sodium and in small font the percentage of daily value
  • Amount of total sugars

It can then show up to 2 additional tidbits (usually of nutrients in which said product excels).

According to Food Navigator,

The FDA wrote to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) in December in support of the trade groups’ front-of-pack labeling program, saying it would exercise enforcement discretion for certain aspects of the scheme. read more…

The enforcement discretion means that if food companies play nice and use the new FOP labels in a non-misleading way, the FDA would be more lenient in other labeling regulations.

What you need to know:

Big win for the food manufacturers. But what about consumers? Are we getting the short end of the stick? Again?

The problems with Facts up Front:

  1. Numbers without context are meaningless. In the example above, is 5 grams of saturated fat a reasonable amount for a food?  The UK solved this by using color coding in its Traffic Light system. 5 grams of saturated fat would be marked as RED, meaning way high. But there are no colors here.
  2. Sugar value is meaningless. How many of us can translate 14g to teaspoons? Secondly, how much of the sugar is naturally occurring and how much has been added? Naturally occurring sugars (in fruit, veggies, dairy) at least come with additional nutrients. Lastly, there is no indication of the daily value for sugar consumption. The 14 grams in the example above are 3.5 teaspoons of sugar.
  3. Including 2 positive nutrients on the label will confuse consumers – A product high in saturated fat but also high in fiber – is that good or not?  This will also encourage excessive fortification of foods just to appear healthy. You can fortify cardboard with some vitamins, it still won’t make it healthy to eat.
  4. If the food industry would really like to help consumers, how about informing consumers about total calories per package, in places where the entire pack is consumed as a single portion. For example, a standard vending machine size soft drink bottle contains 220 calories (mostly from sugar). But in a serving size of 8 fl oz, only 90 calories are presented to the thirsty consumer.

The Institute of Medicine, which has no financial interests in one scheme or other, recommended a simpler, more pro consumer approach. But it has largely been ignored. Too bad.

What To Do at the Supermarket:
Best is to read the nutrition label AND the ingredient list. Only this will provide you with a full picture. You can always used a trusted third party app/website to scan a product barcode and get the most pertinent details to make your decision ;-)
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  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.b.bechtel Jonathan Bechtel

    When reading labels, I still find it best to focus exclusively on the ingredients moreso than the nutriition facts on the labels. Like you noted, there are just too many ways to rearrange things to create an impression of health that isn’t really there.

    Consumer advocates always pine for label simplicity, but this never seems to happen in practice. And the truth is the label is a blunt tool that’s used to convey complex information, so it’s always going to be lacking in one way or another. The tradeoff between simplicity and accuracy is a tough one that’s always going to have knowledgeable experts shaking their head. I have no expectation of there ever being a label which can’t eventually be manipulated to get around its intended purpose. 

    It’s almost like a law of gravity when you have a static rule (the label) that’s being used to govern dynamic actors (food retailers) that participate in a complex field where they have specialized knowledge (health and nutrition). 

    And in my opinion these problems aren’t unique to food either. Similar themes are prevalent in finance, medicine, etc. 

    When approaching the issue of consumer advocacy, I think it’s best to treat suboptimal labeling as a given, and then try to create solutions from there.

  • Tanyajwalker

    The information I must always look at as a parent of a type 1 diabetic is total carbs (not sugars) and serving size,  since neither is included on the front this is useless to me.  And when making choices for my other children I don’t want to know “sugars” I want to know added sugars not naturally occuring.

  • Kevin

    I fail to see how repeating information already on the back of the box on the front as further informing the consumer.  Also, it’s all ‘per serving’ without mentioning what the serving is so the label is fairly useless.  The unit being described is what should be mentioned, not ‘per serving.’

  • Lauren

    Am I missing something, isn’t this exactly what’s on the back? If we’re keying into nutrients, why potassium on front? I don’t think we need more numbers, as you said give amounts in measurements people can relate to and read ingredients. And as you said with meat, limit food in packages/with labels.

  • http://thorfalk.wordpress.com/ Thor Falk

    I am not too convinced by your arguments against this labelling – I believe that people can be expected to convert grams of sugar into tablespoons of sugar or vice versa, or serving sizes into pack sizes.
    I do not like the traffic light system – I am personally actually be not too worried about saturated fats, but about Omega-6 fats. My main criticism is that there is not enough information – I would like to see it broken down much more in detail.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.meekins Tim Meekins

    They should do away with the grams of sugar and just show grams of carbohydrates. Carbs overall are much more important when trying to lose weight.

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