by Marion Nestle
Dec 4 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): FDA

Front-of-Package Labels: The FDA is hard at work trying to do something about public understanding of food labels.  What with the fuss about the Smart Choices program (now withdrawn), FDA wants to get the front-of-package labeling under control.  It is considering various formats for giving a quick overview of the nutritional quality of food products.  FDA is asking for public comment on the various formats (see Federal Register notice).

The FDA chose five versions (plus variations) for comment:

  1. A mini Nutrition Facts version called Nutrition Tips
  2. A UK traffic lights version
  3. A version like Hannaford’s Guiding Stars
  4. A version like the discontinued Smart Choices
  5. One that just highlights calories/servings

I rather like this one, a variation of #1 (colorful, easy to understand, not too cluttered, and makes calories clear).

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The Nutrition Facts Panel: The FDA also is taking another look at the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of food packages.  It is seeking public comment on  a plan for consumer research to test understanding of elements on the Nutrition Facts panel.  Here’s the Federal Register notice with all the information about what’s going on and where to file comments.

What’s interesting about this is that the FDA has great social science researchers on staff.  They’ve been kept under wraps the last eight years and apparently are being let loose again.  Even so, they don’t get to just go out and do studies like we academics do (with human subjects approval, of course).  Oh no.  First, they have to announce that they plan to do the studies (which they did some time ago) and get comments on the idea.  Then they do the research plan and have to ask for further comments on the research design.  That’s what this notice is about.  Once they deal with these comments, they can finally get to work.    It’s a miracle if they do anything at all.  Keep them busy: send comments!

Agency Transparency: The Association of Health Care Journalists (ACHJ) and ten other journalism organizations have filed a complaint.  The FDA, they say, is still requiring journalists to obtain permission from an agency official in order to conduct interviews with staff members.  This is a leftover from the Bush administration.  Time to get rid of it.

Blogging: It is especially time to open up to reporters because Michael Taylor, who is now senior advisor to the FDA commissioner, is now blogging on the Atlantic Food Channel (which also reprints my posts).  If he can blog, FDA staff can talk to reporters.

Addendum: Beverages pretending to be dietary supplements: The FDA has just issued guidance to the beverage industry to stop putting herbal supplements into beverages and calling them dietary supplements so they can get around food rules on health claims.  If a beverage is consumed as a food, it should be labeled as a food.  Guidance, of course, is non-binding but I see this as a warning that the FDA is going to be enforcing its own rules.  Good show!

  • Anthro

    I like the label you chose except that while it gives the calories, per serving, it doesn’t clearly state the number of servings in the package. I always find that people are shocked when you point out that the small bag of chips with 240 calories per serving has 7(!) servings in the bag!

    I think the total calories in the package should be right there with the calories per serving. Serving sizes are so small in the mind of the average person and has a lot to do with the obesity issue. When people realize that the “serving” is eight chips, they begin to see why they have become overweight and can then begin to make better choices.

  • ET Addison

    Also the red-amber-green color scheme implies a lot of moralizing going on.

    So, do you choose foods that are ‘low’ in everything? Or ‘high’ in some things and ‘low’ in others?

    Is high sugar ‘bad’? Or is high fat ‘bad’? Who makes those calls? And where does it explain that.

    And is tuna ‘high’ RED in protein? Is that bad?

    Way too much religion and tsking and fingerwagging in this design.

    And even more confusing.

  • Maria

    One of the more recent issues of CSPI’s Nutrition Action Healthletter had a very good example of what a nutrition label should look like.

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  • Helen

    The red, yellow and green for high, low and medium does raise an interesting issue. For example, I would put high sugar as red. I know from many authorities, from the federal government to the doctors who designed the DART diet, that added sugars can make me less healthy.
    But even though sugar is known to add empty calories to foods, and lower the immune function (I was told this by a naturopath twenty years ago.), big food industry fights like the dickens to impress on us that added sugar in foods is a healthy source of energy. Also, we are to believe that sugar doesn’t make kids act hyper. Considering that the study used to prove this compared the effects of foods sweetened with sugar to that of foods sweetened with aspartame, there was really no control group. This was just one factor causing me to mistrust statements from the food industry.
    So, yes, who decides the red light/green light food levels? And why does none of this seem related to the current food pyramid? Really, this has nothing to do with morality at all, but rather good and bad science. Food that is known to fuel the body and keep it healthy is a matter of biochemistry and physiology, not morality.

  • Helen

    The red, yellow and green for high, low and medium does raise an interesting issue. For example, I would put high sugar as red. I know from many authorities, from the federal government to the doctors who designed the DART diet, that added sugars can make me less healthy.
    But even though sugar is known to add empty calories to foods, and lower the immune function (I was told this by a naturopath twenty years ago.), big food industry fights like the dickens to impress on us that added sugar in foods is a healthy source of energy. Also, we are to believe that sugar doesn’t make kids act hyper. Considering that the study used to prove this compared the effects of foods sweetened with sugar to that of foods sweetened with aspartame, there was really no control group. This was just one factor causing me to mistrust statements from the food industry.
    So, yes, who decides the red light/green light food levels? And why does none of this seem related to the current food pyramid? Really, this has nothing to do with morality at all, but rather good and bad science. Food that is known to fuel the body and keep it healthy is a matter of biochemistry and physiology, not morality. We’re right back to the Bush administration’s “My scientist can beat your scientist.”

  • http://fairfieldgreenfoodguide.com Analiese Paik

    I would love to see GMO labeling included on your suggested label. So many other countries label their products GMO free, but we don’t in the US. The Non-GMO project and their independent labeling program were created to fix this lack of transparency to the consumer. We want to know what’s in our food!

    Interesting that the Smart Choices labeling program was announced around the same time as the NON-GMO program. I figured the Smart Choices program would be shut down first for obvious reasons and am pleased to see that it was. Consumers are smarter than ever about food and are raising the bar on quality and disclosure of product ingredients, etc.

    Seems our worries about what’s in our food grow weekly. Will beef labels tell the consumer whether their cow was vaccinated for e-coli? At least if you know how to read the back of the box, you can figure out fat, sugar, calories, fiber, etc.per serving, but there’s no transparency on some bigger issues that have been brought to light by Michael Pollan’s books and documentary films like FRESH and Food, Inc.

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  • holz

    so… can we have anyone who’s read some edward tufte PLEASE work on these labels?

    it would surely go a long way…

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  • Susan Huff

    Teach children how to read food lables, the game will only change, gready people have always been around and will sell anything you buy, most parents fail to remmember – it is not about making them HAPPY, it is about making them educated and HEALTHY! That is your gig, companies do their gig – SELLING well, If they learn to read labels, you have done the world a favor!

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