by Marion Nestle
Feb 24 2010

Let’s get rid of front-of-package labels!

I have an editorial with David Ludwig in today’s JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association. NOTE: scroll down to find it).  We titled it, “Front-of-package food labels: public health or propaganda?”

We think it’s time for the FDA to consider getting rid of all of them.  How’s that for an idea?

Here’s what Forbes thinks about it.


Update, February 25: the Los Angeles Times wrote about it.

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  • Karyn

    I agree. The labels are more full of junk than the foods themselves! I would be inclined to opt for FULL disclosure of ALL ingredients with percentages written in a larger print on the back so that consumers can easily see what the food they eat actually contains. That would include proper names of ALL artificial additives, preservatives, sweeteners etc. rather than just their numbers, and ALL GMOs.

  • MA

    I also agree. We need labeling for GMOs – it should be up to the consumer to decide if they want to eat GMOs, and no one else. I also like Karyn’s idea of full disclosure in large print.

    None of the proposed front-of-package labeling that I’ve heard of has any information that’s new or terribly different than what’s on the back. If a consumer is too lazy to read the info on the back of the package in the first place, are they really going to heed any kind of label on the front that says the package is full of sugar, for example?

  • Anthro

    I think it’s a good idea to eliminate front-of-package labeling, but not because it wasn’t a good idea to begin with; but rather because it’s been twisted by the food industry beyond any semblance of the good it could have done.

    The fact is that there is a lot of information already on the back, but most people do not read it at all (in my experience–is there any data on this?)

    I would like to see serving size addressed and standardized and for total serving and calories to be in much larger type.

    As to GMO’s, they are already there in almost everything, so not much point in requiring labeling now. Keep in mind, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that they are harmful, although I share the general feeling of repugnance at the idea–but people feel this way about lots of new things.

  • Anthro


    I tried to read your editorial but they want $15 for access. Yikes! Is there any other way to access this?

  • This all speaks to the greater travesty that corporations are allowed to have free speech rights.

  • Marion

    @Anthro: It’s there. Scroll down to find it.

  • Where should the consumer look? The front, the back, the side panel? It’s all very confusing. If they were to just simplify and fix the current label, all would be good.

    Unfortunately, in my research, most people do not read any label. In my book, to lead a healthy lifestyle, you must read the label.

    Ken Leebow

  • I agree. Too many people take the marketing propaganda as health and nutritional fact. The Ingredient lists should be in large print and it should be mandatory to list every ingredient, as well as all gmo’s.

  • Anthro

    Thanks Marion–I feel a bit dim! Who knew?

  • Thanks for a very interesting article. I agree with most of the comments. Nutrition facts alone won’t be enough. As @Karyn suggested having proper names of all ingredients would be useful. However, there are also challenges with proper naming as well as mentioned in this NIH videocast: “Technical and Regulatory Challenges to Biomedical Research on Dietary Supplements.”

  • Gesa Maschkowski

    Thank you for this wonderful statement. Since two years I write about the German and the European debate relating nutrition labelling. This ist my conclusion:
    – Nutrition labelling, especially FOP is just Marketing. MC-Donalds Germany for example has introduced intensive Nutrition Labelling and sales keep rising. Another German manufacturer of frozen food introduced traffic-light labelling and increased its turnover.
    – Manufacturer and retail is not interested in clear, easy and uniform labelling, everyone is fighting for his own system. The only progress I noted is, that studies and arguments become better.
    Its a pity!

  • Judge Robert Sweet in the McDonalds obesity case filed in NY around 2002/03 said that “It is not the place of the law to protect them against their own excesses” when handing down judgment on obese kids that claimed McDonalds made them eat too much.

    The claimants alleged that McDonald’s violated New York State’s consumer fraud statutes by deliberately misleading consumers into thinking their products were healthy and nutritious.

    The First Amendment is a tough nut to crack on this one and the cases already brought to court give food producers a strong hand. This is not as easy as the tobacco cases and that product was proven to have no health benefits and caused harm.

    Enticement or invitation to treat is not a crime provided the buyer and seller operate within the law. As long as the FDA allows products to be sold on the shelf, the supermarkets stock the product, manufacturers tell consumers what’s in the product (the labels on the back) and consumers buy the product then this issue might just end up in the Supreme Court.

    As a strong advocate for front of pack labels it seems that heading down a path that will force producers to be less effective at selling their product will be an uphill battle as long as there is hyper competition in the market place for consumer dollars. And the food business is highly competitive. That’s why more ethical National supermarkets wont stop selling tobacco – customers just go and shop somewhere else that does sell cigarettes.

    But thats okay, its a worthy fight to have and constant pressure needs to be maintained. Well done.

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