Making Sense of Food Labels

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The time has come. With two out of three people obese or overweight in this country and the staggering impact on chronic disease, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg recently announced that it is the agency's intention to make it easier for people to choose nutritious foods for themselves and their families.

The authority that Congress gave FDA to oversee nutritional information on food packages provides a powerful tool for ensuring consumers get clear and accurate information on nutrition to help them build a healthy diet.

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Image Courtesy of FDA

This is not the first administration to take such action. In the 1990's, Louis Sullivan, M.D., then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, spoke of the "Tower of Babel" consumers confronted when making food choices. With the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, FDA introduced the Nutrition Facts food label, the mandatory food label that has become one of the most recognized and trusted icons in the United States. With this powerful tool, consumers were able to use and trust the information they saw and it led companies to improve the nutritional value of foods that now had to carry this label.

But time has passed, and once again bold action is needed. Today, people get their information instantly, and often in 140 characters or less. When they race down grocery aisles, they want to glance at the foods on the shelves and be able to reach for nutritious foods just by looking on the front of the package.

In addition, manufacturers have discovered that nutrition sells and that messages on their packages that highlight the nutritional value of their products is a powerful draw to consumers. This has led to an explosion of nutritional messages, claims, and symbols communicated in so many ways that consumers don't know what to believe. Consumer studies show that some people feel these messages are helpful point-of-purchase shortcuts. But many people are overwhelmed by these messages--and skeptical of their legitimacy.

Further, nutritionists have challenged the nutritional validity of the criteria on which many of these messages are based. Some nutritionists have questioned whether the criteria are oriented more toward marketing than health. Judging from some of the products FDA has seen, we think this is a valid concern.

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Image Courtesy of FDA

That is why FDA acted recently by notifying the Smart Choices Program and others that it is concerned that the proliferation of front-of-pack symbols and logos is confusing, and that FDA intends to play a leadership role in bringing order and science to the process.

In taking this action, FDA Commissioner Hamburg invited manufacturers, retailers, and others to work with us, and we are delighted with the quick results. We have heard from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, as well as from the American Heart Association, the American Society of Nutritionists, Smart Choices Program, and Walmart--all expressing their interest in working with us as we move forward.

And the United Kingdom's food safety agency, which developed a popular program known as the "traffic light system," is sending one of its key nutrition leaders to spend some time with FDA to continue educating us on its efforts and those of the retailers that have supported them.

We are greatly encouraged by the level of interest we have already received and look forward to working with those who, like us, recognize that we can do better. Here are the principles we intend to follow:

Guiding Principles:

• We respect consumers' interest in credible, easy-to-find, easy-to-understand information that will allow them to make healthy choices for themselves and their families.
• Preventing obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases is the primary goal of our efforts. For that reason, front-of-pack labeling programs must be based on the best available nutrition criteria, not on marketing criteria.
• We want to ensure that information or symbols on the front of food packages do not mislead consumers to perceive incorrectly a less healthy food as a healthy choice.
• The FDA has a responsibility to develop the criteria, with input from others in the government, nutritionists, retailers, consumers, manufacturers, and elsewhere.
• The Nutrition Facts panel will always remain the primary source of complete information for consumers and has an important role in the grocery store and in the home.

This work is time-sensitive; and we have a public health imperative to act. As FDA Commissioner Hamburg recently explained:

As a mother of two who frequently finds herself racing down the grocery aisle hoping to grab foods that are healthy for my family, I would welcome the day that I can look on the front of packages and see nutrition information I can trust and use. As the Commissioner of FDA, I see it as my responsibility, and the responsibility of this Administration, to help make that happen.

I hope you'll join us.

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Michael Taylor is Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the Food and Drug Administration, where he is responsible for food safety and nutrition labeling.

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