by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: FOP(Front-of-Package)Labels

Jan 16 2018

Front-of-package labels: Do they work?

The Hartman Group has a handy Infographic on the effects of front-of-package labels on purchasing patterns.  I haven’t seen this summarized so nicely anywhere else.

And here’s the whole thing.  It would make a great poster, no?

Too small to read?  Try this excerpt:

Dec 11 2017

USDA’s case studies on front-of-package labeling

The FDA is responsible for food labeling but in the peculiar way things get done in federal agencies, the USDA governs front-of-package labeling for organics and also gets involved in labels for non-GMO, no-antibiotics and those for country-of-origin.

It has just published a report on all this:

The report is a good place to learn about the labeling laws passed in 1990, and it has an interesting case study on GMO labeling:

It has a lot to say about organic labeling:

Do such labels influence what the public buys?  Yes.  (That’s what the USDA is worried about)

Does the public understand what the labels mean?  Not really. (The USDA worries about this too)

The USDA derives many conclusions from this study, but boils them down to this statement:

There are fundamental tradeoffs in how information is presented to consumers. If it is presented simply, then important nuance or complexity may be missed. On the other hand, if standards and labels attempt to convey complexity, then consumers may just be confused. Policymakers and marketers will need to consider these tradeoffs in the future when developing new process-based labels.

What the USDA does not discuss is the fundamental issue behind fights over food labels.  They work well to discourage people from buying products that may not be good for them or do not meet their values.  That’s why the food industry opposes them so strongly.

Dec 7 2017

The French food industry v. public health: front-of-package label

A colleague in France, Serge Hercberg, a nutrition professor at the University of Paris writes to say that the French government’s decision on October 31 to support voluntary adoption of a “Nutri-Score” front-of-package label is now under attack by the food industry.

Nutri-Score looks like this (A is nutritious, lower grades less so):

The food industry wants something like this (of course it does, nobody can possibly understand it):

My colleague writes:

However,a powerful trade group, which includes major manufacturers of breakfast cereals, candies and cookies, is encouraging its members to instead select another type of nutrition al label. The trade group’s position is aligned with that of six food conglomerates – Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Unilever et PepsiCo (known as the “Big 6”) – who announced in March that they intended to develop an alternative system for the European Union.

With his nutritionist colleague, Chantal Julia, he describes in The Conversation what this fight is about.  I particularly like their example of how the two schemes help (or do not help) consumers choose between a yogurt and a fruit puree.

The Conversation article also comes in a French version.

Jun 1 2016

FDA: What is happening with front-of-package labels?

The FDA issued its final rules for the Nutrition Facts panels, but now I want to know: What ever happened to its front-of-package (FOP) initiatives?

The New York Times editorial on the new food label raised this very question.

But the labels, which most food companies will have to use by July 2018, still have serious limitations. They require busy shoppers to absorb a lot of facts, not all of which are equally important, and then do the math themselves while standing in the grocery aisle. And the labels are on the back of the package, where only the most motivated shoppers will look.

The editorial refers to the FDA’s front-of-package initiatives early in the Obama administration.  These involved two reports from the Institute of Medicine.  The first, released in 2010, examined about 20 existing front-of-package schemes cluttering up the labels of processed foods and evaluated their strengths and weaknesses.  It recommended that FOP labels deal only with calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.  My question at the time: why not sugars?  The committee’s answer: calories took care of it.

But the IOM’s second report in 2011 included sugars and recommended a point system for evaluating the amounts of it and those nutrients in processed foods.  Packages would get zero stars if their saturated and trans fat, sodium, or sugars exceeded certain cut points.

The Times editorial explained what happened next:

the Grocery Manufacturers Association [GMA] called the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation “untested” and “interpretive.” Along with the Food Marketing Institute, it developed its own front-of-package labeling system, which includes some useful information, but is more complex and less helpful than the institute’s version.

As I stated at the time, the FDA let the GMA get away with this and has said not one more word about front-of-package labels.

According to the Times, the FDA is still studying the matter.

it’s not clear when or if the agency will require front-of-package labels. The food industry, of course, wants to make its products appear as healthy as possible. The F.D.A. would serve consumers best by taking the Institute of Medicine’s good advice and putting clear and concise nutrition labels right where most shoppers will see them.

It certainly would.  It’s time to take those IOM reports out of the drawer and get busy writing rules for them.

Mar 14 2016

Gaming Australia’s Health Star labeling system

Australia has government-sponsored front-of-package nutrient labeling—the Health Star system—that looks a lot like the U.S. grocery industry’s Facts Up Front, but is even more favorable to manufacturers of processed foods.

As I explained a few years ago, Facts Up Front was a successful scheme by the Grocery Manufacturers and Food Marketing Associations to head off the FDA’s attempts to put traffic-light signals on the front of processed food products (here’s more of the back story).

Like the U.S. system, the Australian system is voluntary.  Unlike it, Health Stars are prominent and convey the impression that the more starts, the better.

A year into the program, Australian newspapers are writing about how companies are “gaming” the system:

SOURCE: CHOICE

Deakin University professor of public health nutrition Mark Lawrence said the health star rating system was being exploited as a marketing tool by junk food manufacturers to make consumers think their food was healthy. He said the scheme for packaged food undermined the public health message that people should eat fresh, unprocessed food.

This article quotes a statement by Kellogg that sales of Nutrigrain cereal went up after the company reformulated the product to raise its rating from 2 to 4 stars.

But isn’t reformulation a good thing?  It could be but just because a processed food is “better-for-you,” does not necessarily make it a good choice.

Professor Mark Lawrence of Deakin and Christina Pollard of Curtin University write:

Its main design limitation is that it simplistically frames the cause of, and solution to, dietary imbalances in terms of nutrients. This is fundamentally at odds with the latest nutrition advice, which uses a food-based approach…So what the health star rating system ends up doing is encouraging marketing of unhealthy or discretionary foods, as healthy options.

Overall, they point out:

Part of the problem is that the campaign’s main message – “the more stars the better” – is misleading…The actual health message is to eat more of these [recommended healthy] foods; it’s not that we should try to eat food with more stars.

Good advice.

Oct 6 2014

Mexico’s front-of-package food label: Eat more sugar!

Mexico has a new scheme for front-of-package labeling.

Take, for example, this label for Coca-Cola’s “green” Life drink, sweetened with sugar and Stevia.

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The label says:

Sugars

9 g

10%**

The asterisks take you to this explanation:

**Of the daily nutrients recommended based on a diet of 2000 calories

Huh?  Since when is sugar intake recommended?  Since when does 9 grams equal 10% of a recommended amount?

How is it possible that Mexico set a daily standard intake (equivalent to our Daily Value) of 90 grams (!)—nearly twice as much as the amount recommended as an upper limit by the World Health Organization  and many other international health authorities?

The answer: food politics, of course.

Most international health agencies recommend an upper limit for added sugars of 10% of calories (50 grams for a 2000-calorie diet).  They consider 5% (25 grams) even better for health and especially for dental health.

The Mexican label covers total sugars.  This hides the copious amounts added by food companies.  All of the sugar in Coca-Cola Life is added.

How did this happen?  From what I’ve heard,

  • Mexican public health authorities were not consulted about this standard.
  • Although public health scientists filed well-documented objections, these were ignored.
  • Critics are now under a gag order.  If they work for the government, they are not allowed to criticize the sugar label.

Officials of the Ministry of Health and the Mexican equivalent of the FDA have close ties to food companies.  They produced this label in collaboration with the food industry, with no input from independent public health experts.

For a country that leads the world in obesity prevention policies, this label is a huge embarrassment.  It should be fixed, immediately.

Ecuador, on the other hand, is using this front-of-package label.  Wouldn’t it be helpful if everyone did?

New Picture (6)

Mar 4 2014

Food industry puts $50 million into another end run around the FDA

Over the weekend, Politico announced that the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) were finally going to launch their long-threatened $50 million campaign to promote voluntary “Facts Up Front” labels on food packages.

In case you never noticed these labels—and I doubt most people do—here is an example:

GMA and FGI conducted their own survey.  This—no surprise—found that people love Facts Up Front labels, but I find that hard to believe.  Neither do others, according to Politico reporters.

For what $50 million will buy, see yesterday’s Washington Post, page A5 (thanks Politico).

Recall the history

Facts Up Front (formerly known as Nutrition Keys), was originally launched as an end run around what the FDA was then trying to do with front-of-package labeling initiatives.  This happened early in 2011.

The GMA/FMI ploy brought the FDA’s initiatives to a halt—despite the agency’s investment in two Institute of Medicine (IOM) studies to establish a research basis for front-of-package labels.

These, in turn, followed on the heels of the food industry’s ill-fated Smart Choices—an attempt to promote highly processed foods as healthy.

GMA/FMI’s goal was to head off any possibility that the FDA would mandate red, yellow, and green traffic light signals.

Red signals might discourage consumers from buying products made by the companies GMA and FMI represent.

The food industry had cause to worry.  The IOM was considering—and eventually published—a front-of-package scheme similar to traffic lights.  It used checks or stars to evaluate the content of calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium, and sugars, all nutrients to watch out for.

GMA/FMI got its much more complicated—and, therefore, harder to understand—Nutrition Keys out first.  This preempted the IOM recommendations.

The FDA gave up.  The two IOM reports went into a drawer and the FDA has done nothing with them.

Why is GMA/FMI doing this now?

Surely, it is no coincidence that GMA/FMI is rolling out this campaign on the heels of Let’s Move!’s triumphant release of the FDA’s new food labeling proposals.

They must be worried that the FDA will unearth the two IOM reports, adopt the IOM recommendations, and start rulemaking for front-of-package labeling.

One sign of the food industry’s strategy comes from Bruce Silverglade, who for years was head counsel for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), but has now revolved to a Washington, DC law firm that represents food companies.  He told Politico:

The general view in the industry is that nutrition information has really moved to the front of the pack. What FDA is doing is essentially proposing a new model of an old dinosaur.

As Michele Simon tweeted: “that comment…is rich coming from ex-@cspi lawyer who fought for label.”

What’s wrong with Facts Up Front? 

Plenty.

The IOM recommended that front-of-package labels be:

  • Simple: easy to understand
  • Interpretive: putting judgments in context
  • Scaled: indicating good, better, and best

Facts Up Front does none of the above.

Facts Up Front is a tool for selling, not buying.

Its purpose is to make highly processed foods look healthier, whether or not they really are.

Whether slightly better-for-you processed foods will help anyone make better food choices and be healthier remain open questions.

What should happen now?

With Let’s Move! really moving, this seems like a great time to urge the FDA to pull out those IOM reports and get busy on a front-of-package labeling method that will really help the public make healthier dietary choices.

Dec 19 2013

Chile’s new food labeling rules: Why can’t we do this?

A reporter in South America called yesterday to ask me about the new rules for food labels and marketing to children just issued by the Chilean ministry of health.

The rules establish nutrition standards for foods.  Products that exceed the standards will have to say high in sugar, salt, or fat in brightly colored labels (red, green, blue) on the front of the packages.

New Picture

The standards themselves are much stricter than anything ever proposed in the United States, even than those of the ill-fated Interagency Working Group (IWG).

New Picture

Sodas, for example, can only contain 15 grams of sugars per 8 ounces (they typically contain 27 grams).

I’m told that other rules deal with advertising to children (no toys, nothing specifically enticing such as cartoons).

How could this happen?

I’m not up on Chilean politics.  All I know is that these rules were proposed under the current president whose wife was behind the Elige Viver Sano program, one quite similar to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move!

If you know something about the politics of this initiative, please write a comment.  I’d like to know more about this.  Thanks!

Update: Thanks to Dr. Corinna Hawkes Dr Corinna Hawkes, Head of Policy and Public Affairs for the World Cancer Research Fund International sends the following information:

 

 

 

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