by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

Oct 13 2022

Will we ever get better labeling of alcoholic beverages? Yet another try.

My book talk today: Online with Hunter’s Food Policy Center in conversation with Charles Platkin, 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.  Registration is HERE.

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) announces that it and the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League are filing a lawsuit calling on the Treasury Department to compel a decision on mandatory alcohol content, calorie, ingredient, and allergen labeling on alcoholic beverages.

Plaintiffs seek relief from Defendants’ nearly nineteen-year delay in responding to a 2003 petition submitted by Plaintiffs, 66 other organizations and eight individuals, including four deans of public health.  [See Petition]…The Petitio urged TTB to reequire alcohol labelig with the same basic transparency consumers expect in foods.  For alcohol, that means labeling that has alcohol content, calorie, and ingredient information—including ingredients that can cause allergic reactions.

Nineteen year delay?  Yes.  Why?  The alcohol industry would much rather that you don’t know what you are drinking.  It has opposed virtually every attempt to expose what’s in its products.

Just for fun, I looked up the alcohol labeling chapter in my book with Malden Nesheim, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

We titled the chapter, “Alcohol labels: industry vs. consumers.”

Here, for your amusement, is the table illustrating current labeling requirements.

CSPI deserves much applause for trying to fix this situation and for its patience.

We need something a lot better than this.

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For 30% off, go to www.ucpress.edu/9780520384156.  Use code 21W2240 at checkout.

 

 

Oct 11 2022

More on FDA’s proposed definition of “healthy”

Last week, STAT News asked if I would write something about the FDA’s definition of “Healthy” for them.  I agreed because I was planning a blog post on it anyway (posted here).

I wrote a draft and had a great time working with a STAT editor, Patrick Skerritt, to fill in some missing pieces.  Here’s how it came out (with a couple of after-the-fact embellishments).

First Opinion: FDA’s plan to define ‘healthy’ for food packaging: Better than the existing labeling anarchy, but do we really need it?   STATNews, Oct. 7, 2022

The FDA has announced the set of rules it proposes to enforce for manufacturers to claim that a food product is “healthy.” The proposed rules are a lot better than the labeling anarchy that currently exists. But here’s my bottom line: health claims are not about health. They are about selling food products.

The FDA says that a “healthy” product must meet two requirements: It must contain a meaningful amount of food, and it must not contain more than certain upper limits for saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.

To illustrate the “healthy” claim, the FDA is also researching a symbol that food makers can use, and might be testing examples like these.

[Source: https://www.regulations.gov/document/FDA-2021-N-0336-0003]

Doing all this, the FDA says, would align “healthy” with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and with the Nutrition Facts label that is printed on food packages.

This action is the latest in the FDA’s attempts to simplify food label information so it’s easier for consumers to identify healthier food choices. It is also an attempt to head off what food companies most definitely do not want: warning labels like those used in ChileBrazil, and several other countries. These have been shown to discourage purchases of ultra-processed “junk” foods, just as they were supposed to, a message understood even by children or adults who cannot read. No wonder food manufacturers will do anything to prevent their use.

If we must have health claims on food packages, the FDA’s proposals are pretty good. They require any product labeled “healthy” to contain some real food (as opposed to a collection of chemical ingredients or, as author Michael Pollan calls them, “food-like objects”), and for the first time they include limits on sugars.

Here’s an example given by the FDA: To qualify for the “healthy” claim, a breakfast cereal serving would need to contain at least three-quarters of an ounce of whole grains and could contain no more than one gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars.

These proposed rules would exclude almost all cereals marketed to children.

But do Americans really need health claims on food products? You might think that any relatively unprocessed food from a plant or animal ought to qualify as healthy without needing FDA approval, and you would be right. But health claims aren’t about health. They are meant to get people to buy food products, not real foods like fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, or fish.

Food companies love the term “healthy” because it gets people to buy food products.

 

The history of “healthy”

How did we get to where the FDA needs to require a product to contain real food to be considered “healthy”? Blame KIND bars.

In 2015, KIND (then a small private company, but now owned by Mars) advertised its bars as healthy because they contained whole foods like grains and nuts. But nuts have more fat than the FDA allowed at the time for products to be labeled as “healthy.” The FDA warned KIND that its bars violated the rules for health claims.

KIND fought back. It filed a citizens’ petition arguing that even though nuts are higher in fat than the FDA allowed, they are healthy. The FDA could hardly argue otherwise — of course nuts are healthy — and it backed off. It permitted KIND to use the term and said it would revisit its long-standing definition of “healthy.” That was good news for KIND.

At the time, the FDA’s definition of “healthy” set upper limits for fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol; required at least minimal amounts of one or more vitamins or minerals; and said nothing about sugars. So the new FDA proposals break new ground in simplifying the nutritional criteria and in putting a limit on sugars.

 

Front-of-package symbols

These, too, have a long history with the FDA. In the early 1990s, when the agency was writing the rules for Nutrition Facts labels on food products, it tested public understanding of several prototype designs. As it happened, nobody could understand any of the samples very well, so the FDA picked the one that was the least poorly understood. Soon afterward, food companies and health organizations developed symbols that would allow buyers to recognize at a glance which products were supposed to be good for them.

By 2010, more than 20 such symbols were on food packages. The FDA commissioned the Institute of Medicine to do studies of front-of-package labeling. The Institute’s first report on the subject examined the strengths and weaknesses of all of the symbols cluttering up the labels of processed foods, and recommended that the FDA develop a single symbol that would cover just calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium. Why not sugars too? The Institute said calories took care of them.

But the Institute’s second report did include sugars. It recommended a front-of-package labeling system that would give food products zero, one, two, or three stars (or check marks) depending on how little they had of the undesirable nutrients.

This idea so alarmed food manufacturers that they quickly developed the Facts Up Front labeling system in use today.

This, in my view, is so obfuscating that nobody pays any attention to it. But this scheme, coupled with industry pushback, was all it took to get the FDA to drop the entire idea of a symbol that would tell people what not to eat.

Here we are a decade later with the FDA’s current proposal. This plan is strong enough to exclude huge swaths of supermarket products from self-identifying as “healthy.” Products bearing the “healthy” symbol will have to contain real food and be low in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, as called for by federal dietary guidelines.

The new rules won’t stop “healthy” products from being loaded with additives and artificial sweeteners. And the FDA won’t require warning labels for unhealthy products, which work better than other symbols. But these proposals are a marked improvement over the current situation.

And the FDA might do more. It could look into the idea of warning labels. It already promises to make a decision about the other ambiguous marketing term, “natural.” A decision on that one can’t come soon enough.

As for “healthy,” the FDA is seeking feedback on its proposals. Instructions for filing comments, which can be made until Dec. 28, 2022, are at Food Labeling: Nutrient Content Claims; Definition of Term “Healthy.

I can’t wait to see what companies wanting to sell ultra-processed food products as “healthy” will have to say about this.

Marion Nestle is professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, author of the Food Politics blog, and author of the new memoir, “Slow Cooked: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics” (University of California Press, October 2022).

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For 30% off, go to www.ucpress.edu/9780520384156.  Use code 21W2240 at checkout.

 

 

Jul 6 2022

Canada’s new front-of-pack food label

Canada has joined the ranks of countries with front-of-package food labels alerting customers to products high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat.

I learned about this in a press release from Kate Comeau, Communications Advisor, Mission, Canada | Heart & Stroke

The official announcement from Health Canada is here. 

It comes with an explanatory Infographic.

I think the warning labels used in some Latin American countries work better, but this is a big step forward and is likely to cover the great majority of ultra-processed foods—and those are the ones that are best avoided.

Congratulations to Canadians who pushed for this.  Progress!

Jan 4 2022

Food industry influence on international labeling policies: a report

To continue the thene of yesterday’s post, check out this report from the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (an international organization that supports advocacy).

 

The report documents the food industry’s strategies to defeat warning labels on ultra-processed food products (UPP).

1. Protect the UPP industry’s reputation and brands through corporate washing;
2. Influence policies through multilateral bodies to delay implementation and threaten countries with legal and economic concerns;
3. Divert attention from its corporate responsibility on the damage to environmental and human health to blame individuals for their behaviors;
4. Imply that their products contribute to health, the environment, and society while blocking the development and implementation of healthy food policies; and
5. Seek loopholes in regulations to continue promoting ultraprocessed products.

For example, here is how strategy #5 was implemented in Mexico:

Here, also for example, is image #27:

What should civil society organizations be doing to counter industry tactics?

  • Monitor and unmask industry practices
  • Use legal strategies
  • Avoid loopholes, gaps, and ambiguities when developing labeling  policies
  • Demand transparency and no conflicts of interest

This report is exceptionally well documented, covers an enormous range of countries, and gives a quick but compelling overview of how the food industry operates internationally to product product sales.

Oct 12 2021

The Sugar Association vs. Artificial Sweeteners

As I mentioned yesterday, the American Beverage Association represents the interests of soft drink companies that use sugars and artificial sweeteners in their products.  Its goal: to make you think both are just fine for your health.

Today, let’s take a look at a related, but different trade association, this one The Sugar Association.  Its goal: to make you not worry about sugars and to think that they are better for you than artificial sweeteners.

Here, for example, is a press release from this Association from this past summer: New Research Shows Large Majority of Consumers Understand Real Sugar Comes from Plants & That it Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet; Data reveals significant shift in perceptions of sugar and artificial sweeteners.

And here is its infographic showing data on public suspicions of artificial sweeteners.

Now, we have a new campaign from The Sugar Association: The Campaign for Sweetener Transparency.

More than 10,000 consumers across the United States have joined the fight for sweeping reform of the government’s labeling regulations covering the use of alternative sweeteners in packaged food by signing an online petition urging the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to require food companies to place clear, complete and accurate information on food labels…it’s virtually impossible for shoppers to know what alternative sweeteners are in which packaged foods because the FDA only requires food companies to list the chemical names of sugar substitutes on food ingredient labels. So, consumers only see names like Xylitol, Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates, Saccharin, Acesulfame Potassium, Neotame, Isomalt and Lactitol on ingredients lists without even knowing what they are and why they are used.

The Sugar Association wants artificial sweeteners clearly labeled so customers will switch to products that have sugars instead.

  • Products containing artificial sweeteners fall in the category of ultra-processed—foods that should be avoided or eaten in small amounts.
  • Products containing added sugars also should be avoided or eaten in small amounts.

That’s why this campaign is about market share, not health.

For a basic guide to what to do about sugars, see this resource guide from Hunter’s Food Policy Center.

May 12 2021

The hidden secrets of juice drinks

I saw this question on The Lunch Tray, Bettina Siegel’s column on Substack.

Turns out that lots of people have no idea what’s in these things.

That’s what my NYU colleague Jennifer Pomeranz and Jennifer Harris of the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center found in their recent study,  Misperceptions about added sugar, non-nutritive sweeteners and juice in popular children’s drinks: Experimental and cross-sectional study with U.S. parents of young children (1-5 years)

Their overall finding: Most parents in their survey did not know what was in these drinks.

  • 62% could not identify most drinks that contained diet sweeteners, even when shown the information panel with nutrition and ingredient information.
  • Parents overestimated the average percent juice content in sugar-sweetened drinks, believing that these drinks contained 22% juice, when they actually contained 3% juice on average.
  • Even with the nutrition information and ingredient list on the information panel, 53% incorrectly believed that unsweetened 100% juice and/or juice/water blends contained added sugar.
  • Parents were more likely to believe that statements of identity with the words “natural” and “water beverage” meant the drink did not contain added sugar or diet sweeteners and did contain juice, although they are commonly used on children’s flavored water drinks that contain added sugar, diet sweeteners, and no juice.

These drinks are confusing (deliberately, I’m guessing) and it’s understandable why their contents are obscure.

The authors recommendation is a  good one, in my view.

Put on the front label of juice drinks:

  • Added sugars (this is currently buried in the Nutrition Facts label)
  • Diet sweeteners
  • Juice content
May 11 2021

Whatever happened to GMO labeling?

Food Navigator reminds me that GMO labeling has not yet been implemented.

Compliance with the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) – which requires firms with annual sales of $2.5m to label ‘bioengineered’ foods, beverages, and supplements – is mandatory from January 1, 2022. So is the industry up to speed? It’s a pretty mixed bag, according to labeling experts.

We know that corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically modified (also canola and sugar beets).

But what about products that you might buy in supermarkets?  Those remain a mystery.

The FDA lists “completed consultations” for genetically modified foods—effectively, approvals—here.  These include Fuji and other apples, potatoes, and squashes, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily in supermarket produce sections.

Confusingly, the USDA has its own list.

It would be nice to have supermarket produce labeled, although the label, as I’ve written previously, is not as helpful as it might be.

I can’t wait to see if stickers like this actually appear on GMO squash, apples, and salmon.  The compliance date is coming soon!

Jan 15 2020

The new food label kicks in at long last

The FDA released its final guidance on the new food labeling rules late in December.

I have a collection of Kellogg Froot Loop cereal boxes (or facsimiles) going back to its first year.  I’ve been tracking it closely and have just started seeing the new label in stores.

The Spanish translation is optional, but I’m for it.

Industry groups are still complaining that they need more time.  

Really?  Let’s review the history.

  • Between 1993 and 2013: FDA receives 12 citizen petitions calling for changes to the Nutrition Facts and Supplement Facts labels.
  • 2003 to 2007: FDA issues 3 advance notices of proposed rulemaking seeking public comment on issues relevant to updating the Nutrition Facts label.
  • 2014: FDA issues proposed rules.
  • 2015: FDA issues supplemental proposed rule covering added sugars, DV, and footnote text.
  • 2016: FDA issues final rules, expects all companies to comply by 2019.
  • 2017: FDA delays compliance date until 2020.
  • 2019: FDA issues final rules; FDA says it will give six-month leeway for compliance.

I say it’s about time.  Yes!

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