Food Label Makeovers Proposed by CSPI

Designs for New Nutrition & Ingredient Facts Labels Unveiled in Nutrition Action Healthletter

December 7, 2009

WASHINGTON—Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods have helped guide Americans' food choices for 15 years. But in that time, companies have cooked up a number of schemes to trick consumers about what's in—or isn't in—packaged foods. Today, the Center for Science in the Public Interest—the group that campaigned for the 1990 law requiring nutrition labeling—exposes some of the tricks that occur on the front of the label, and unveils makeovers of the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredient lists to last for the next 15 years.

One innovation CSPI has long urged is the use of symbols on the fronts of packages to give shoppers a quick snapshot of the key nutrients. (The packaged-food industry, under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, recently halted its own recently adopted system, Smart Choices, which allowed some junk foods like Froot Loops to use the program's logo.) The FDA recently announced that it will conduct some preliminary tests to see which front-label system helps consumers the most.

CSPI is also calling on the FDA to crack down on deceptive claims ("Strengthens your immune system," "Helps Protect Healthy Joints!" and others) and to tighten up industry-loosened definitions of "fiber" and "all natural." Companies shouldn't be able to brag about having “0 grams trans fat!” if the item contains significant amounts of saturated fat, says the group. And companies that boast that their foods are "made with whole grain" should be required to disclose how much of that grain is whole. It's often less than half, according to CSPI.

"So many packaged foods are little more than white flour, fat, sugar, salt and additives in various combinations, yet they are marketed as modern-day medical miracles, offering vague benefits for virtually every part of the body," said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. "The FDA has recently challenged some especially egregious health claims, such as the exaggerated cholesterol-reduction claims on Cheerios. But the agency should put a permanent stop to a wide range of other deceptive claims."

CSPI's reimagined Nutrition Facts label puts a greater emphasis on calories, and indicates when a food is high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, or added sugars ("added" means sugars that do not occur naturally in fruit and milk). Only fiber from whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables, and not faux fibers such as polydextrose and maltodextrin, would be considered to be fiber on the nutrition label.

CSPI also would like to see ingredient lists presented as clearly as the Nutrition Facts panel is, as opposed to the condensed, all-caps type often used. The new Ingredient Facts panel also would separate the major ingredients from minor ones. And for foods with several forms of sugar scattered around the ingredients list, those sugars would be combined so that they would show up higher on the list of ingredients. Percentages of key ingredients would be disclosed.

"Food marketers bring their graphic design firepower to bear on the front of food packages, but then go to great lengths to make their ingredient lists almost indecipherable," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "The fine print shouldn’t taketh what the big print giveth."

CSPI illustrates how food labels can trick consumers and shows "before" and "after" Nutrition labels in the December issue of Nutrition Action.


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