by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Labels

Nov 2 2007

Health claims and eco-labels on food products: the USDA’s analysis

USDA economists (a national treasure, in my opinion) have just produced an analysis of health (“no trans fat!”) and ecologic (Fair Trade, free-range) labels. Their conclusion: most of the time, the labels benefit food producers more than consumers. Why am I not surprised? Much evidence suggests that they confuse consumers about the issues (which is why I went to the trouble of writing What to Eat).

Nov 2 2007

Have any ideas for those pesky Daily Values on food labels?

The FDA has just announced that it will be revisiting the Daily Values on food labels so here’s your chance to weigh in on whether you think they are good, bad, or indifferent in helping people decide whether a food product is worth eating. These, of course, are complicated. Lower is better for saturated fat and sodium, but higher is better for fiber and vitamins. Is there a better way to do this? Now is the time to state your opinion to the FDA. How? Submit comments according to these instructions.

Sep 10 2007

FDA Considering Traffic Light System for Healthy Foods

The FDA is meeting this week to consider a red, yellow, green system for labeling foods according to their degree of healthfulness. Here’s what the New York Times has to say about this. This is, of course, would be much like the Hannaford supermarket “follow the stars” program, about which several of you have strong feelings (see comments under entries for Supermarkets and Labels). In the early 1990s, Center for Science in the Public Interest did a fold-out pyramid designed to be put on school cafeteria tabletops. This listed foods on green (anytime), yellow (once in awhile), and red (seldom) sides of the pyramid. As is always the case with these kinds of approaches, the line between categories is a thin one and subject to much argument and manipulation. The FDA proposed something much simpler about five years ago: to put the entire number of calories on the front of packaged foods. What a good idea! It still hasn’t happened. Don’t hold your breath for this one either.

Sep 6 2007

Kellogg’s Nutrition at a Glance?

I get sent lots of food company press releases and this one is just in. Kellogg’s is announcing its new nutrition labeling for cereal boxes. Useful? Or even more confusing?

Sep 6 2007

Sugar Free?

The FDA is fed up with products claiming to be sugar free but not mentioning that they still have lots of calories. So the agency has decided not to let food companies get away with this anymore. Its latest “guidance” warns companies that if they say a product is “sugar-free,” it better be low in calories too. It’s great to see the FDA trying to do something about misleading health claims. Doesn’t this poor, beleaguered agency deserve a cheer for this one!

Aug 11 2007

Can Foods Be Ranked Nutritionally?

A comment posted yesterday under the Label category asks whether it is possible to rank foods: “The idea that I’m trying to express is some measure that shows that 100 calories of, say, broccoli sauteed in olive oil is healthier than 100 calories of shortbread cookies or 100 calories of potato chips, even if they happend to have the same number of fat grams.”

I have philosophical as well as practical problems with this kind of approach. First, the practical: Foods contain 40 to 50 components known to be required in the human diet and hundreds more (antioxidants, for example) that are not considered essential but have effects on health. All foods except sugar–which has calories but no nutrients–have lots of different nutrients, but in different proportions. Once you get beyond soft drinks, the situation gets really complicated. Many groups have taken this on: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hannaford supermarkets, the Australian Heart Foundation, for example. I think they are way too complicated and the cut points set up a slippery slope. If you rank foods high because they contain vitamins, all companies have to do is add vitamins to their products to make them rank higher.

Philosophically, I much prefer the “eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food” approach. Because there are so many different nutrients to keep track of, and because foods have nutrients in different proportions, eating lots of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods takes care of nutritional needs. Keeping junk foods (highly processed by definition) to a minimum means that you don’t have to worry about the nutritional details and can enjoy what you eat.

Thanks for asking!

Aug 9 2007

Better Nutrition Labels?

Today’s question (see Vending Machines post): “I was looking at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bag of carrots today…If I read this label and compare it to packaged foods, the carrots really don’t look all that healthy. And yet I know they are. I have the same experience with apples and with other fruits and vegetables. What needs to be added and changed on the Nutrition Facts panel so that this makes more sense? Has anyone done a blind study of nutrition labels, having people compare them side-by-side and see which food they believe is more healthy without knowing what the food is, but from the label alone?”

Response: When Congress passed the nutrition labeling act of 1990, which mandated Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods, the FDA created a bunch of possible designs and tested them on consumers. The result: nobody understood any of the designs. The FDA chose the one that consumers least misunderstood. In What to Eat, I devote two chapters to explaining food labels, one for Nutrition Facts, and one for Ingredients. The FDA has a lengthy site to teach the public to understand food labels. I think the ingredient list tells you more about the real nutritional value of foods than the Facts part. My rule, only somewhat facetious, is to never buy foods that have more than 5 ingredients. The more processed a food is, the more ingredients it is likely to have (to cover up the losses), and the lower its nutritional quality. Fresh and some frozen foods have only one ingredient: carrots, apples, broccoli, beans. The most important thing I’d change on food labels is the calories. The FDA proposed five years ago to require packages likely to be consumed by one person to display the total number of calories on the front panel, rather than listing calories per serving, which makes the calories appear lower than they are. What happened to that excellent proposal? It disappeared without a trace (the packaged food industry loathes the idea). It’s tricky to figure out what else an ideal food label would display. Any ideas? Forward them to the FDA (and post them here, of course).