Legislators Propose Modernizing Food Labeling

Bill Would Require Front-of-Package Labeling, Define 'Natural' and 'Whole Grain' Claims, and More


Statement of CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson

In the Bizzaro world of Superman comics, up is down, day is night, and things are generally the inverse of what they are in reality. Regrettably, when harried dads and moms plow their shopping carts down supermarket aisles, they encounter a similar, strange world: One where "whole grain" waffles can be made mostly of white flour, where "all natural" granola bars can have factory-refined high maltose corn syrup, and where artery-clogging ice cream bars can cheerfully boast of their lack of trans fats.

Making matters worse, food manufacturers have tried to preempt action by the Food and Drug Administration on immediately understandable nutrition symbols on fronts of packages. Wouldn't it be great if parents could tell their kids, "buy anything you want as long as it has a green check mark, or has three stars, or has a rating of 80 points or higher"? Instead, parents now have to contend with a dizzying array of confusing, and sometimes misleading, proprietary front-of-label schemes that undermines the whole concept. The bill calls on the FDA to implement one useful, consistent, front-label nutrition symbol, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

An old country music song says "the big print giveth, and the small print taketh away." But in the case of this container of Coffee-mate, the good people at Nestlé have all but taketh away the fine print itself. With these tiny capital letters, in black print on a dark brown background, Nestlé has unhelpfully obscured its partially hydrogenated oil, its corn syrup solids, its mono- and diglycerides, and its dubious artificial sweetener. This legislation would put a stop to these unreadable ingredients lists—which itself would be a historic victory for consumers.

But the bill would do a lot more: it would require that the amounts of added sugars and caffeine to be disclosed, ensure that shoppers were alerted when foods were artificially colored or sweetened, require the percentage of whole grains to be listed when a label touts whole grains, stop deceptive "healthy" claims, and highlight calorie contents.

So for all of these reasons, consumers should be grateful that Senator Blumenthal, Representative DeLauro, and Representative Pallone intend to modernize food labels and end the chaos at the supermarket. We need a clean-up in aisle one. And aisle two, and aisle three. And so on. The Food Labeling Modernization Act would require food manufacturers to clean up their act and make labels useful to consumers who want to make sensible, informed choices about the foods they purchase.

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