U.S. is falling behind other nations’ food labeling successes
Consumers should be able to tell at a glance if a food or beverage is high in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In a regulatory petition filed today with the Food and Drug Administration, the nonprofit food and health watchdog group is asking the agency to use its authority to establish a simple, standardized, evidence-based, and mandatory front-of-package labeling system for all packaged foods sold in the United States. CSPI is joined by the Association of SNAP Nutrition Education Administrators and the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists in submitting this petition to FDA.
CSPI is the group that led the campaign to pass the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which required Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, and that helped shape the Obama-era updates to the label in 2016. But as informative as Nutrition Facts labels are to some consumers, CSPI says they’re generally under-utilized, and simpler front-of-package nutrition labels have shown great potential to improve diets in other countries that have adopted them.
While the food industry has piloted its own front-of-package labeling scheme in the U.S., known as Facts up Front, behavioral research shows that this system fails to influence consumers’ food choices.
“Shopping for healthy foods should be as easy as possible, and front-of-package nutrition labels have a proven track record for helping consumers make better choices,” said CSPI president Dr. Peter G. Lurie, who served as Associate Commissioner of the FDA during the Obama administration. “Clearly, this is too important to be left to the food industry, whose own efforts in this area bear more resemblance to marketing than to nutrition education.”
Despite decades of public health efforts, people in the United States continue to have generally poor diet quality and high rates of diet-related chronic disease. Government survey data show that Americans are generally over-consuming calories, added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat, and are under-consuming fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
“Current food labels create confusion and fail to provide important, useful information to consumers,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) who, with Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), among others, have sponsored legislation that would require the FDA to deliver front-of-package nutrition labeling to consumers. “The FDA can and should take action to update our food labels, putting essential nutrition information front-and-center and giving people the tools they need to make healthier choices.”
DeLauro supports CSPI’s petition and is urging the FDA to get started on a rulemaking in response.
“Times have changed, our shopping habits have changed, and the food industry is always changing,” DeLauro said. “It’s time food labeling caught up. Improvements are desperately needed. To help consumers select healthy products, my colleagues and I introduced the Food Labeling Modernization Act which would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a single, standard front-of-package nutrition labeling system in a timely manner for all food products with nutrition labels. Front-of-package labels are the future, and a welcome change that will better consumer knowledge of what is in the food they buy.”
Real world evidence shows that interpretive front-of-package nutrition labeling can improve consumer understanding and encourage healthier diets. In such studies, nutrient warnings (identifying foods high in over-consumed nutrients) and traffic-light symbols (identifying products high, medium, or low in over-consumed nutrients) have been shown to improve consumers’ choices compared to Nutrition Facts labels alone. CSPI says that of the two systems, nutrient warnings have been more effective in the randomized experiments at prompting consumers to select healthier foods.
Dozens of countries have already implemented interpretive front-of-package nutrition labeling to supplement their previous nutrition labeling requirements. In 2016, Chile adopted a mandatory nutrient warning label policy requiring octagon-shaped symbols identifying products high in sugars, calories, saturated fat, and sodium. After the policy’s implementation, the South American nation saw significant reductions in purchases of all of those nutrients. Sugar consumption plummeted by more than 10 percent.
Examples of interpretive nutrient-specific front-of-package labels used in Chile, Israel, and Ecuador. (Calories added)
Chile has also seen food manufacturers reformulate products to have smaller amounts of these over-consumed nutrients.
Canada is the latest nation to adopt front-of-package nutrition labeling, announcing earlier this summer that by 2026, packaged foods will be required to bear labels calling out high levels of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.
Front-of-package nutrition labeling will be one of the main policy initiatives that CSPI seeks to advance this fall at a White House conference on hunger, food, and nutrition that the Biden administration is planning for September.
Senator Cory Booker, who helped inspire the idea for such a conference, says that front-of-package labels can help consumers like him—who are trying to improve their health by making changes to their diets. The senator is challenging himself, and his supporters, to forgo added sugars this summer.
“Imagine being able to go to the grocery store with the confidence that you could easily load your cart with only the healthiest foods,” said Senator Booker. “If you’re concerned about high blood pressure, you could easily avoid products higher in sodium. Worried about diabetes? You could pick products without added sugars. I hope the White House and the FDA put front-of-package labeling at the top of their agenda.”
“I’m sorry to say that the United States has fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to leveraging food labels to promote healthier diets,” said CSPI senior science policy associate Eva Greenthal. “Make no mistake: If front-of-package labels didn’t work as well as they do, the industry wouldn’t be fighting them as hard as they are.”
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