Food labels play an important role in the battle against obesity and diet-related disease, which are responsible for hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the United States each year. While food labels provide a great deal of information, the labels should be updated and made more readable and deceptive practices should be stopped.
This year, the FDA finalized its long-awaited revisions to Nutrition Facts labels and serving sizes--its first comprehensive overhaul of the label since it first appeared on packaged foods in 1994.
Highlights of the new labels:
- a line for added sugars (in addition to the existing line for total sugars), as well as a corresponding percent-Daily Value for sugars (CSPI first petitioned the FDA to put Added Sugars on Nutrition Facts labels in 1994)
- larger typeface for calorie counts
- no reference to "calories from fat," reflecting the new understanding that saturated and trans fat increase the risk of heart disease, not polyunsaturated fats and oils
- adjusted serving sizes to reflect what people realistically eat (2/3 cup of ice cream is a serving, not 1/2 cup)
- lower Daily Value for sodium (from 2,400mg per day to 2,300mg per day)
- no more required declarations of vitamins A and C
- required declarations for potassium and vitamin D
How will new labels benefit consumers?:
- percent-Daily Values give a more realistic idea of how much sugar is in their food, as opposed to grams (example: a 20-ounce bottle of Coke will provide 130 percent of a person's added sugars limit for a day)
- added sugars line will help determine how much sugar comes from fruit or milk in products like yogurt, jams, or cereals, and how much comes from high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars
How can the labels further be improved?
- CSPI would prefer the Daily Value for sodium to be lowered further to 1,500mg per day
- mandating a simple symbol (a number from 1-100, a green logo on healthier foods, 0 to 3 checkmarks, etc.) on the front of packages that would quickly convey the overall nutritional value of foods
Misleading health claims
- require that all health-related claims be reviewed by the FDA prior to marketing to ensure they are scientifically valid
- prohibit claims that a food is low in trans fats, unless the food is also low in saturated fat and cholesterol
- require that claims for so-called “Natural” foods meet specific standards
- require that claims, such as “made with whole grain,” be permitted only if the product discloses the amount of whole grain (as a percentage of the total grain content)
In addition, the FDA and Congress should require the content and format of ingredient listings to be improved:
- caffeine content per serving should be disclosed
- percentages of key ingredients should be listed in an easy-to-read font and format.
Modernization of nutrition and health information on food labels is an essential weapon in the fight against obesity and diet-related diseases. Cost-benefit analyses of previous food labeling reforms show that the costs of changing food labels is greatly outweighed by the health benefits of providing consumers with better label information. You could help improve labels by writing to your representatives in Congress. The time for action to improve food labels is now!