The U.S. is long overdue for a food labeling overhaul
Food labels can play an important role in promoting healthy eating and informed food choices. Over 30 years ago, CSPI and our allies successfully advocated for the creation of the “Nutrition Facts” panel that is still found on all packaged foods today.
Thirty years later, food technology and nutrition science have changed — yet federal labeling rules, largely, have not. As a result, food labels don’t always provide the simple, straightforward information that today’s consumers need to evaluate products and make healthy choices.
The U.S. is long overdue for a food labeling overhaul — and the Food Labeling Modernization Act (FLMA) of 2023 does just that.
Here are four ways the FLMA would bring food labeling into 2023:
1. It encourages reformulation in the food supply.
The FLMA’s signature initiative directs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish a
standard front-of-package nutrition labeling system for all of the packaged foods it regulates. This system would complement the Nutrition Facts label and would clearly convey when high levels of sodium, added sugar, or saturated fat are present in foods. Other nations, such as Canada, Ecuador, and Chile, have already adopted policies requiring standard, easy-to-use, front-of-package nutrition labeling systems and evidence from Chile shows that these policies can propel companies to reformulate foods with less sugar, salt, and fat.
2. It ensures consumers have access to information where they can use it.
Thirty years ago, consumers didn’t purchase their groceries online. Now, grocery e-commerce is booming, and junk food marketing has migrated online. In 2020, 29% of U.S. households were active monthly users of online grocery. Online grocery shoppers face an onslaught of marketing messages, often aimed at luring them to purchase less healthy products. Meanwhile, basic product information may be nowhere to be found during the online purchasing process. The Food Labeling Modernization Act would update the labeling laws to require that the same Nutrition Facts, ingredient, and allergen information now on packages be available for online grocery items.
3. It prevents deceptive labeling that makes junk foods appear healthy.
The food industry too often uses marketing claims to create the illusion of healthfulness for packaged foods, regardless of how healthy they truly are. For example, many people don’t know that terms like ‘wheat,’ ‘multigrain,’ and ‘made with whole grain’ tell us nothing about the amount of whole grains in a food. Other processed foods may be marketed with images of whole strawberries or spinach leaves. In reality, they may only contain small amounts of fruit or vegetable juice (certainly not whole vegetables or fruit) and certainly do not provide the same health benefits as fresh produce. Clear labels required by the FLMA will help consumers understand what’s actually in their food and help them make decisions that adhere to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
4. It provides access to information that is currently concealed from consumers.
Certain food ingredients pose risks to people with specific conditions, and it’s currently far too
difficult to figure out whether and how much of those ingredients are present in foods. For example, too much caffeine can cause restlessness, insomnia, and other health problems. But caffeine content isn’t currently disclosed on the label for many foods and drinks. The FLMA requires clearer disclosures for several ingredients, such as caffeine, phosphorous, and gluten-containing grains.
If you can order a week’s worth of groceries on Instacart without ever leaving your home, surely food companies can ensure consumers have the information they need to make healthy choices. It’s time that we modernize food labeling.