by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

Jan 23 2010

The new salt study

The current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has an article from investigators at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine (where I worked from 1976 to 1986) and Columbia using computer models to predict the effect of relatively small reductions in salt intake on health.  Their conclusion:

Modest reductions in dietary salt could substantially reduce cardiovascular events and medical costs and should be a public health target.

The article also is discussed in an accompanying editorial, and was the topic of a long discussion in the New York Times.

I never know what to make of computer models, but one thing is clear: many people consume two or three times the amount of salt recommended.  It’s hard to avoid doing so.  Australian investigators surveyed processed foods and found more than 60% of them to contain salt above recommended levels.  Ours are unlikely to be any different.

While we are on the subject of salt in processed foods:  Juli Mandel Sloves of Campbell Soup correctly points out that my observation that the company’s kids’ soups contain 480 mg sodium per 4 ounce serving is incorrect.  A serving of soup is 8 ounces, not 4.  I see how I made this mistake.  The label states that a serving is half a cup (4 ounces) and that one serving contains 480 mg sodium.   But you are supposed to dilute what’s in the can with another can of water.  That makes it 480 mg sodium per 8 ounces, the same amount of salt but diluted.  The confusing serving sizes are another good reason to rethink and redesign the Nutrition Facts label.

Jan 1 2010

What’s up with food and nutrition in 2010?

My San Francisco Chronicle column, now appearing in print on the first Sunday of the month, is also online.

Its title:  “Hot food issues ready to boil over this year.”

Q: What do you think will happen with food and nutrition in 2010?

A: I wish I could read the leaves while I drink tea, but the best I can do is tell you which issues I’m going to be watching closely this year.

Hunter Public Relations recently asked 1,000 Americans which food-related issues they thought were most important in 2009. The top three? Food safety, hunger and food prices. For the decade, the winner was childhood obesity.

I have my own top 10 list of hot-button issues for 2010, and here they are:

  • Hunger: More than 35 million Americans get benefits to which they are entitled under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, food stamps). The economy may be improving, but not quickly enough for millions who have lost jobs, health care and housing. Will Congress do anything this year to strengthen the safety net for the poor? It needs to.
  • Childhood obesity: Rates of childhood obesity may have stabilized, but we all want to figure out how to prevent kids from gaining so much weight that they develop adult chronic diseases. I expect to see more efforts to improve school food and make neighborhoods more conducive to walking to school, riding bikes and playing outside.
  • Food safety regulation: Congress is sitting on a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration some real authority for food safety. The bill does not do what is most needed – establish a single food-safety agency – but is a reasonable step in the right direction. Let’s hope Congress gets to it soon.
  • Food advertising and labels: The long-dormant FDA and Federal Trade Commission are getting busy at last. In the wake of the Smart Choices fiasco, the FDA is working to make package labels less misleading and easier to understand. The agencies have proposed nutrition standards for products marketed to children. These voluntary standards fall far short of my preference – an outright ban on marketing junk foods to kids – but puts food companies on notice that their products are under scrutiny. The FDA is also working on designs for front-of-package labels. I’m hoping it chooses a “traffic-light” system that marks foods with a green (any time), yellow (sometimes) or red (hardly ever) dot. Expect plenty of opposition from the makers of red-dotted products.
  • Meat: The meat industry has been under fire for raising food animals under inhumane conditions, using unnecessary hormones and antibiotics, mistreating immigrant labor, and polluting soil and water. Now it is also under fire for contributing to climate change. Recent films like “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh” and books such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” are encouraging people to become vegetarians or to eat less meat to promote the health of people and the planet. I’ll bet the meat industry pushes back hard on this one.
  • Sustainable agriculture: The back-to-the land movement has loads of people buying local food, choosing foods produced under more sustainable conditions and growing their own food. The number of small farms in America increased last year for the first time in a century. Seed companies cannot keep up with the demand. It will be fun to follow what happens with this trend.
  • Genetically modified (GM) foods: My book, “Safe Food,” comes out in a new edition this year, so I am paying especially close attention to debates about GM foods. The FDA’s 1994 decision to prohibit labeling of GM foods continues to haunt the food biotechnology industry. By now, nearly all American soybeans and sugar beets (95 percent) are GM, as is most corn (60 percent). But when the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved GM sugar beets in 2005, it neglected to perform the required environmental impact assessment. On that basis, environmental groups want to ban further planting of GM sugar beets. The dispute is now in the courts.
  • Chemical contaminants: The FDA has yet to release its report on the safety of bisphenol A, the plastic chemical that acts as an endocrine disrupter. Shouldn’t it be banned? The bottling industry says no. Watch for fierce arguments over this one.
  • Salt: Nutrition standards allow 480 mg sodium (the equivalent of more than 1 gram of salt) per serving. A half cup of canned soup provides that much. A whole cup gives you 4 grams and the whole can gives you 8 grams – much more than anyone needs. Nearly 80 percent of salt in American diets comes from processed and restaurant foods. Companies are under pressure to cut down on salt. Will they? Only if they have to.
  • Dietary advice: The new edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the government publishes every five years, is due this year. What will it say? I can’t wait to find out.

Those are the issues I am tracking these days. My one crystal-ball prediction? We will be hearing a lot more about them this year.

Happy new year!

Dec 21 2009

Food labeling: yet another update

The FTC Forum last week got everyone going about food labels.  Here are the latest items to hit my inbox:

Traffic light front-of-package labels may do some good after all: As I explained in a previous post, British investigators did a study showing that the green-yellow-red traffic light dots on food packages do not necessarily help people make healthier choices.  Now, another British scientist argues that the study showed no such thing; at best, it showed that more research is needed to see how consumers interpret and act on those signals.

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) approves some (weak) omega-3 claims: Under great pressure from food companies desperate to make claims for omega-3 fatty acids, EFSA is allowing three, if somewhat grudgingly:

  • DHA intake can contribute to normal brain development of the foetus, infant and young children
  • DHA intake can contribute to normal development of the eye of the foetus, infant and young children
  • DHA intake can contribute to the visual development of the infant

“Can,” I suppose, is a bit less conditional than “may,” but these are not strong claims.  And they say nothing at all about making kids smarter.  Under these rules, that  “brain development” claim on Nestlé’s omega-3-fortified Juicy Juice drink (the one I find so absurd), would be OK.  But anything more specific, the EFSA committee said, would have to be backed by further science.

FDA food labeling rules: if after all the fuss about serving sizes at the FTC Forum, you want to know what FDA really says about them,  you can find the details on the FDA food labeling website.  On that site, click on Label Formats/Graphics to find the current rules on serving sizes.  Good luck making sense of them.

That’s more than enough about food labels for the moment.  It’s the holidays and time to talk about something cheerier.  Stay tuned.


Oct 31 2009

Italy’s new food label: “Mafia-free”

Thanks to Anulu Mass of the Global Post for telling me about the latest front-of-package foods labeling initiative, this one from Italy.  I’m just back from lecturing in Rome, Milan, and Vicenza, but didn’t get to Sicily which must be why I missed seeing Libera Terra labels on wine, olive oil, pasta, and tomato sauce.  Libera Terra labels guarantee that the foods were produced with no mob connections.  I’m so relieved.

Trick or treat?

Oct 20 2009

FDA to clean up front-of-package mess

The FDA has a new “Dear Industry” letter announcing that it is going to set some rules for those “better-for-you” stickers on the front of junk food packages.  Why?   “FDA’s intent is to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which FOP [front of package] nutrition labeling must be based.”

What this is about, of course, is all those self-endorsement labels food companies like PepsiCo (Smart Spot),  Kraft (Sensible Solution), and many companies collectively (Smart Choices) have been putting on their products.

The companies set up their own nutrition criteria and then applied those criteria to their own products. Surprise!  A great many of their products qualified for the “better-for-you” labels.

I’m guessing Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that the Smart Choices check mark could go onto Froot Loops was so astonishing, and the subject of so much ridicule, that the FDA had to act.  If nutrition criteria are developed independently, most junk foods would not qualify.

The FDA also says it will be testing how well consumers understand different kinds of package labels.  It gives a bunch of examples.  Want to know how the FDA is thinking about this?  Check out its handy backgrounder, which if nothing else is an excellent introduction to the entire issue of front-of-package labels.

Have a preference about what to use?  Write the FDA at this address:

Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. All comments should be identified with the title of the guidance document: Guidance for Industry: Letter Regarding Point of Purchase Food Labeling.

Addendum, October 22: Here are two additional documents to add to the collection.  First, a letter to representative Rosa DeLauro responding to her complaint about the Smart Choices program.  Second, is a a summary of the talking points used by Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in her press conference on the new FDA initiatives.   My conclusion:  the FDA is back on the job!

It’s about time the FDA got back on the job. This is in reaction to the self-endorsements food companies have been making on package labels. The way this works is that companies set up their own nutrition criteria and then apply those criteria to their own products. Guess what. Lots of their products qualify for better-for-you labels. Examples: PepsiCo (Smart Spot) and Kraft (Sensible Solution), and now lots of companies working together (Smart Choices). I think Smart Choices was the final straw for the FDA. The idea that its check could go onto Froot Loops made it clear that the bar had to be set higher. Yes, they are suggesting something voluntary, but if the nutrition criteria are honest enough, junk foods won’t qualify.

Sep 23 2009

Update on not-so-Smart Choice labels

Three items on the Smart Choices front (make that four – see below):

1.  Let’s start with the great video by ABC News [if the link doesn’t work, go to the ABC News site and search for Food Label Fight].  It features an incredulous Mark Bittman pulling check-marked products off supermarket shelves, along with Richard Kahn defending the program.  Kahn, as I discussed in What to Eat, defended the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) implied endorsement of Post sugary cereals.  When Jane Brody wrote about this in the New York Times, the Association promised to remove its logo from the products and did so after a bit.

2.  The letter-writing campaign organized by Change.org has had the same effect: “Victory: Change.org Members Force Health Organizations to Back Away from Food Labeling Ploy.”

The new marketing program, called “Smart Choices,” is a front-of-the-package nutrition-labeling program designed in theory to help shoppers make smarter food choices.

But as the New York Times exposed last week, the selections are anything but healthy. One of the selections is Froot Loops, which was chosen, according to one board member, because “it’s better for you than donuts.” (No, we’re not kidding. We couldn’t make this up.)

Despite the program’s dubious standards, it maintained the appearance of legitimacy because researchers associated with three reputable organizations – American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, and Tufts University – were on its board.

In response, thousands of Change.org members sent letters to the presidents of these three major research institutions urging them to remove their name from the program.

The result? All three organizations responded to the pressure this week by publicly distancing themselves from the food labeling scheme and officially asking Smart Choices to remove their name from its website and marketing materials – thereby publicly embarrassing and discrediting the program.

Fine, but this one isn’t over until the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) also extricates from its commitment to manage the program – a clear conflict of interest.

3.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is asking for nominations to a committee to study front-of-package labeling (what follows is edited from the request letter):

The IOM is searching for experts in the scientific, technical, and medical professions to be considered for a study committee titled Examination of Front of Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (Phase I). The sponsors are the CDC and FDA.   The Phase I committee will undertake a review of front-of-package nutrition rating systems and symbols…[and] will also plan for a Phase II.

Phase I will (a) identify front-of-package systems being used, (b) consider their purpose and overall merits, (c) identify the criteria underlying the systems and evaluate their scientific basis, (d) consider advantages and disadvantages, (e) plan Phase II which will consider the potential benefits of a single, standardized front-of-package food guidance system regulated by FDA (my emphasis).

Send the names of candidates to front-of-pack@nas.edu by October 5, 2009. You do not need to contact the individuals you nominate.

This is great news but I’m way too impatient.  This two-phase process will take years. Is the FDA really going to have to wait that long to take action on front-of-package labels such as Smart Choices?

FDA: How about issuing a moratorium on all front-of-package labels until the committees do their work?

4.  Update, September 24: On that very issue, Congresswoman Rosa de Lauro has asked the FDA to do an investigatation of the Smart Choices program.  Excellent idea!

Sep 7 2009

FDA to research food labels

The FDA just announced in the Federal Register that it plans to take a good hard look at public understanding of what’s currently on food labels.  It says it will do an Internet survey of 43,000 people to:

  • Identify attitudes and beliefs to do with health, diet and label usage
  • Determine relationships between these attitudes and beliefs, demographics, and actual label use
  • Look at the relevance of these attitudes
  • Identify barriers to label use

I hope they ask me!

What is this about?  Let me take a wild guess: Health claims?  Smart Choices labels?  Anything that makes people think highly processed foods are good for them?  Or distracts from the Nutrition Facts panel?

The FDA is required to allow 60 days for comment.   Tell the FDA you think the more research it does on food labels, the better!

Aug 14 2009

Labeling GM foods: if the U.K. can do it, we can too!

You will recall that the FDA’s 1994 stance on labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods was that labeling foods as GM or non-GM would be misleading  because the foods are no different.  Despite overwhelming evidence that the public wants to know whether foods are GM or not, GM foods do not have to be labeled.  Worse, those that are labeled non-GM have to include a disclaimer that this makes no difference (I explain how all this happened in Safe Food).

At present, there is no way to know whether GM foods that have been approved by FDA (such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, papayas) are actually in the produce section of supermarkets.  When I was writing What to Eat, I paid to have some papayas tested.  Most were not GM.  But you have no way of knowing that.

The GM industry (translation: Monsanto) has opposed labeling from the very beginning, no doubt because of fears that people will reject GM foods.  The makers of processed foods object to labeling because practically everything they make contains GM ingredients: about 90% of the soybeans and 50% of the corn grown in America is GM.  Ingredients made from these foods – corn and soy oils, proteins, and sweeteners – are widely used in processed foods.

The Europeans are faced with the same problem but insist on labeling GM.  Guess what?  No problem.  Hershey’s Reese’s NutRageous candy bars in the U.K. disclose the GM ingredients in exactly the way our products disclose allergens: “Contains: Peanuts, Genetically Modified Sugar, Soya and Corn.”

Here’s the label (borrowed from Mike Grenville at flickr.com/photos):

3174531452_4f024f62aa

Hershey is an American company.  If labeling in the U.K. is this simple, we ought to be able to do this here, no?  Here’s a chance for the FDA to fix an old mistake and give consumers a real choice.