by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

Sep 27 2011

Food industry thinks name change will disguise bad labeling scheme

Does a name change make a difference?  The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) evidently think so.

They are changing the name of their preemptive front-of-package (FOP) labeling scheme from “Nutrition Keys” to “Facts Up Front.”

The new name comes with a new website, a new organization (FactsUpFront.org), and a $50 million marketing campaign.

Its purpose?  As I have discussed on more than one occasion (see here and here, for example), GMA and FMI are engaged in a blatant, in-your-face attempt to undermine the FDA’s current efforts to rationalize FOP labeling.

The FDA engaged the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to produce two research reports on FOP labeling.  The first IOM report, released a year ago, concluded that FOP labels should disclose only calories and three “bad-for-you” nutrients: saturated fats, trans-fats, and sodium.  I thought the report made sense but that the omission of sugars was a mistake.

The IOM also said that information about good-for-you nutrients—protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals—would only confuse consumers and would be likely to encourage food companies to unnecessarily fortify products with these nutrients as a marketing strategy.

The second IOM report, according to press accounts, is due out sometime in October.  The FDA is waiting for this report before starting rulemaking on FOP labels, an interminable process at best.

In the meantime, the food industry has jumped the gun.  The Facts Up Front website justifies this scheme on the basis of the Dietary Guidelines:

To ensure that consumers receive consistent and reliable information, the labeling system also adheres to current guidelines and regulations from FDA and USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services.

…Manufacturers may also choose to include information on up to two “nutrients to encourage.” These nutrients – potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and iron – are needed to build a “nutrient-dense” diet, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Yes they are, but not on the front of food packages.  It’s obvious why GMA and FMI are doing this—they know that nobody will look at or understand the label.

But they should not be doing this.  It is the wrong thing to do.

On the topic of name changes:  The American Dietetic Association (ADA) has just changed its name to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).  I’m not a member of the ADA, can only speculate on what this is about, and have no comment.

 

Jul 29 2011

Rethink the food label? Vote by Sunday noon!

The Berkeley group that organized a contest to redesign the food label has picked its top choices from among 24 entries.   Take a look at them on that site and vote for your favorite by midday Sunday.

Tara Parker-Pope has a nice summary on her New York Times blog along with interviews with the judges.  Lily Mihalik, cocreator of the project explains:

We asked food thinkers and design minds to come together and give advice on how they might rethink the food label and bring some insight into how design impacts choice…There are a lot of things right with the current label, but at the same time people are confused. The question is whether a new nutrition facts label could help people make more educated decisions.

Good question.  My take is that most of the entries are even more complicated than the current Nutrition Facts label and leave out a lot of useful things you might like it to do:

  • State the content of calories per serving
  • State the serving size
  • State the content of nutrients of interest per serving (opinions can vary as to which are worth listing)
  • Compare those levels to standards for daily intake
  • Explain how those levels apply to a typical day’s diet
  • Indicate how the food fits into diets that vary in calorie intake
  • List ingredients
  • List allergens
  • Be accurate, noticable, understandable, and usable

Overall, the label is supposed to help consumers make more healthful food choices.  It also has to fit on food packages.

As several of the entries suggested, it would also be helpful if the label could indicate the degree of processing.  Actually, you can figure that out now by looking at the ingredient list.  Count the ingredients, see if you can pronounce them, and make sure they are recognizable as food.

If anything, this project demonstrates how difficult it is to develop a design that addresses all of these issues.   The January 6, 1993 Federal Register notice that announced the Nutrition Facts label takes up nearly 900 pages.

That notice reviewed the research that led to the current label.  The review makes it clear that nobody understood any of the available design options.   The FDA, under great pressure to meet a deadline set by Congress, chose the design that was least poorly understood.

Hence the FDA’s web pages devoted to explaining how to read and interpret the Nutrition Facts label, and its even lengthier web guide to the food industry on how to create the labels.

The FDA is currently doing the preparatory work for an eventual revision of the label, so these designs come at an opportune time.  Take a look and see what you think of them. 

The designers were brave to take this on. 

And so is the FDA.

May 28 2011

Redesign the Nutrition Facts label? Here’s your chance!

Utne reader has just announced the most interesting contest: redesign the food label.

The contest is sponsored by Good magazine and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s News21 program.  It is called the Rethink the Food Label project.

Anyone can enter.  Just think of some way that would make the label more useful.

The FDA is currently working on doing just that, and for good reason.  The label is so hard to use that the FDA devotes a lengthy website to explaining how to understand and use it.

This too is understandable.  The Nutrition Facts label is the result of regulations in response to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.  When the FDA started writing regulations to implement the Act, it tested consumer understanding of a bunch of potential designs.

The result?  Nobody understood any of them.  The FDA, under pressure to complete the regulations by the congressional deadline, chose the option that was least poorly understood–the best of a bad lot.

Surely someone will come up with something better than this?  The deadline for submission: July 1. One of the judges is Michael Pollan. Give it a try!

 

Apr 26 2011

Should food labels say salt or sodium?

According to today’s Food Chemical News (which, unfortunately, requires a subscription to read), the FDA is arguing to make the international standard for food labels say sodium, not salt.

The U.S. delegation to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling will push for requiring the term “sodium” rather than “salt” on nutrition labels.

The European Union and its allies prefer “salt,” arguing that it is better understood by consumers.  But:

The United States is strongly opposed to removing “sodium” from the list of nutrients requiring disclosure. “We hope to achieve compromise and not remove sodium from the list,” said Schneeman. Asked about resolution of the dispute, she replied, “We still have our feelers out [to potential supporters]. Sodium is the nutrient, not salt.”

Maybe, but salt is what people eat.

I think “salt” makes more sense.  You?


Jan 25 2011

“Singing Kumbaya,” GMA/FMI displays preemptive label design

I listened in on the conference call at which the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute announced their new Nutrition Keys design for front-of-package labels.

My favorite comment: We are all “singing kumbaya” here.  Nutrition Keys, they said, was the result of a” monumental, historic effort” in which food companies “stepped up to the plate in a big way,” “with 100% support.”

Why did they go to all this trouble?  Because “A healthy consumer makes for a happy consumer.”

Kumbaya, indeed.

The real reason, as I explained yesterday, is to preempt the FDA’s front-of-package food labeling initiatives which might make food companies reveal more about the “negatives” in processed foods.

Here’s what GMA and FMI say the new label will look like:

Four of these things are required: Calories, Saturated fat, Sodium, and Total (not added) sugars.  Packages can also display up to two “nutrients to encourage” picked from this collection:  protein; fiber; vitamins A, C, and D; and potassium, iron, and calcium.

Let’s give these food trade associations credit for listing sugars instead of the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation for trans fat.  Trans fats are already gone from most processed foods.  Everyone cares about sugars.  But these are total sugars, not added sugars, which is what really matters.

And protein?  Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets?  We already eat twice the protein we need.  The rationale?  Vegetarians.   I repeat.  Since when don’t vegetarians get enough protein?  Never mind, protein makes the products look better.

Nutrition Keys merely repeats what’s on the Nutrition Facts labels, only worse.  It makes the percent Daily Values practically invisible.  Which is better?  High or low milligrams or grams.  You have to know this, and Nutrition Keys doesn’t help with that problem.

Nutrition Keys, says the industry, is about “more clarity in labeling.”  Really?  Here’s what it will look like on a food package.

I’ve been collecting reactions.

Although GMA and FMI insist they they are doing this in response to the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, the White House issued this statement:

The White House, including the First Lady, recognizes these companies for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative. We regard their commitment to dedicate space, for the first time, to an industry-wide front-of-pack label as a significant first step and look forward to future improvement. The FDA plans to monitor this initiative closely and will work with experts in the field to evaluate whether the new label is meeting the needs of American consumers and pursue improvements as needed. We will continue to work on seeking solutions for the problem of childhood obesity in America.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro was more forthcoming:

The industry’s unveiling today of its front-of-package labeling system is troubling and confirms that this effort should not circumvent or influence FDA’s effort to develop strong guidelines for FOP labels.

Given that negative and positive nutrients will not be differentiated on the package, there is significant risk that these labels will be ignored.  An adequate labeling system must clearly alert consumers about potentially unhealthy foods, and should not mislead them into believing that some foods are healthy when they clearly are not.

Reporters asked tough questions on the conference call about preemption of FDA efforts to do front-of-package labeling in a rational way (see my post from yesterday).  Perhaps space limitations made full accounts impossible:

Jan 24 2011

Forget FDA. Grocery trade groups to do their own “better-for-you” logos

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are announcing their “Nutrition Keys” plan for front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labels.  Their member companies have agreed to display calories and percent of saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, per serving, on the front of product packages.

So far, so good.

But they also will be displaying up to eight “positives,” nutrients that are supposed to be good for you.  They say they will be using some kind of design similar to what some companies are using now, only with “positives” added.

Note: this illustration comes from Mars (the company, not the planet).  It is not what GMA and FMI will necessarily use.

Let me repeat what I wrote last October when GMA and FMI first said they intended to do this:

Forget the consumer-friendly rhetoric.

There is only one explanation for this move: heading off the FDA’s Front-of-Package (FOP) labeling initiatives.

In October, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the first of its FDA-sponsored reports on FOP labels.  Based on research on consumer understanding of food labels and other considerations, the IOM committee strongly recommended that FOP symbols only list calories, sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat.

This led William Neuman of the New York Times to summarize the IOM approach as: “Tell us how your products are bad for us.”

GMA and FMI would much rather label their products with all the things that are good about them, like added vitamins, omega-3s, and fiber.  If they have to do negatives, they prefer “no trans fat” or “no cholesterol.”

What they especially do not want is for the FDA to impose “traffic-light” symbols.  These U.K. symbols, you may recall from previous posts, discourage consumers from buying anything labeled in red, and were so strongly opposed by the food industry that they caused the undoing of the British Food Standards Agency.

GMA and FMI, no doubt, are hoping the same thing will happen to the FDA.

At the moment, the FDA is waiting for the IOM’s second report.  This one, due in a few months, will advise the FDA about what to do about FOP labels—again based on research.  Couldn’t GMA and FMI wait?

From what I’ve been hearing, GMA and FMI could not care less about the IOM or FDA.  This is what they had to do to get member companies to agree.  They say the new labels will go on about 70% of branded products by next year.  They also say they will spend $50 million on public education.

How this will play out in practice remains to be seen.  You can bet that plenty of highly processed foods will qualify for “positives,” just like they did with the industry-initiated Smart Choices logo, may it rest in peace.

As I said in October: This move is all the evidence the FDA needs for mandatory FOP labels.   GMA and FMI have just demonstrated that the food industry will not willingly label its processed foods in ways that help the public make healthier food choices.

Let’s hope the GMA/FMI scheme flunks the laugh test and arouses the interest of city and state attorneys general—just as the Smart Choices program did.

The official announcement is coming this afternoon.  Stay tuned.

Addition: Scott Obenshaw, Director of Communications for GMA files the following clarification:

1.)     In addition to the information regarding calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content, the Nutrition Keys icon on some products will display information about two “nutrients to encourage.”  The two nutrients to encourage that may appear on some products as part of the Nutrition Keys icon must come from the following list: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and also protein.  These “nutrients to encourage” can only be placed on a package if the product has more than 10% of the daily value per serving of the nutrient and meets the FDA requirements for a “good source” nutrient content claim.

2.)     Transfat is not part of the label – only calories, saturated fat, sodium and total sugars content.

Let’s give GMA and FMI lots of credit for replacing the IOM’s recommendation for trans fat with sugars.  Trans fats are heading out of the food supply and consumers want to know about sugars.  So that’s an improvement.  And two positives might not overwhelm the so-called negatives.  But I’m eager to see what the design really looks like and will report as soon as it is released.

Jan 20 2011

What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives?

In a press conference attended by Michelle Obama, Walmart today said it will do five things:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods by 2015
  • Develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products
  • Make healthier processed foods more affordable
  • Put a new, different kind of Walmart store in low-income “food deserts”
  • Increase charitable support for nutrition programs

I’ve been on the phone all day with interviewers, most of them totally focused on the first two.  Walmart has established its own nutrition criteria for judging its own products.  These seem generous and not particularly challenging, and this is just what Pepsi, Kraft, and other companies have been doing.  These criteria are only slightly better.

The idea that Walmart is going to do its own front-of-package label to identify those products is particularly annoying.  They are doing this just when the Institute of Medicine and FDA are trying to establish research-based criteria for front-of-package labels.  So here is one more company trying to preempt FDA regulations.

When I asked Walmart representatives about this, they told me that the FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.  Sorry.  I don’t buy that.

The next two initiatives are much more interesting and have much greater potential to do some good.  Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  This sounds good, but what about the downside?  Will this hurt small farmers?   Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.

And then there is the one about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities in order to solve the problem of “food deserts.”  This also sounds good—and it’s about time groceries moved into inner cities—but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted?  Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business?  Here too, Walmart is short on details.

None of the reporters seems to be connecting these initiatives with Walmart’s dismal history of low wages and poor working conditions.  Will these change for the better?

Walmart is not a social service agency.  It is a business and a hugely successful one.  It outsells the largest grocery chains in America by a factor of two.   Today’s New York Times says that 16% of U.S. sales of Kraft products are at Walmart stores.  PepsiCo admits to 10%.   These are huge numbers.

Walmart can get whatever it wants from suppliers—and even get Mrs. Obama to endorse its actions.  That’s power.

Whether these initiatives will do anything for health remains to be seen.  They will certainly put pressure on other suppliers and stores to tweak their products. I don’t think that’s good enough.

I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice.

That’s why I think the most important of these initiatives is the one to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  That could make a real difference.

Jan 19 2011

Surprise! Most “better-for-you” kids’ foods aren’t

The Oakland-based Prevention Institute has just released its new research report: Claiming Health: Front-of-Package Labeling of Children’s Food.  The report summarizes the Institute’s investigation of whether kids’ foods with “better-for-you” front-of-package labels meet dietary recommendations and nutrition standards.

Bottom line: they don’t.

Researchers bought 58 kids’ food products made by companies who have promised to meet certain nutritional criteria.  All had front-of-package labels that indicate healthier options.

The researchers measured the contents of these foods against a fairly standard—and quite generous—set of nutrient criteria.

The criteria allow products to have up to 25% of the calories from added sugars, up to 480 mg of sodium, and as little as 1.25 grams of fiber per serving.

Even so, the data show that:

  • 84% of the study products could not meet one or more of the nutrient criteria
  • 57% of the study products were high in sugar
  • 53% of the study products were low in fiber
  • 93% of cereals were high in sugar and 60% were low in fiber
  • 36% of prepared foods and meals were high in sodium, 24% were high in saturated fat, and 28% were low in fiber
  • 90% of snack foods were high in sugar, and 90% were low in fiber

Nutrient criteria make it easy to game the system, and front-of-package labels do exactly that.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) will soon release its second report on front-of-package labels, this one recommending what the FDA should do about them.  Let’s hope the IOM committee pays close attention to this report.

Claiming Health makes it clear that without rigorous nutrient standards, plenty of not-so-good-for-you foods will be labeled as better for children.

As I keep saying, alas, front-of-package labels, like health claims, are about marketing, not health.

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