WASHINGTON (AP) — Nutrition facts labels on food packages list ingredients and nutrient levels, but they
don’t tell consumers outright if a food is good for them.
Public health advocates say that information is necessary to help consumers make healthy choices at the
supermarket. They’d like to see labels on the front of packages and a clearer statement of which
ingredients are good and which should be avoided.
The Food and Drug Administration is working on a label overhaul and has proposed two different versions.
Writing separately in The New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday, former FDA Commissioner David
Kessler and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official William H. Dietz both say the FDA
doesn’t go far enough. Dietz, the CDC’s former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity
and Obesity, is now with George Washington University.
Five ways these experts, and others, say nutrition facts labels could be improved:
—INDICATE OVERALL NUTRITIONAL VALUE: The FDA proposed a nutrition facts overhaul in February that made a
lot of improvements sought by the public health community. There was more emphasis on calories, revised
serving sizes closer to what Americans really eat and a new line for added sugars. But Kessler says
there is nothing in the new framework that “actively encourages consumers to purchase food rich in the
fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are rightfully considered ‘real food.”’
Both Kessler and Dietz say the panel’s emphasis on specific nutrients gives food companies the ability to
make claims on the fronts of their packages that can mislead consumers. For example, sugary or fatty
foods can entice customers by adding fiber and promoting that. Diners often consume more of a food that
is advertised as low in calories, whether it is healthy or not.
As Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest puts it: “It’s a bunch of technical
terms — saturated fat and cholesterol and dietary fiber. What do those mean? Are these numbers high or
low, good or bad, what do you do with it?”
—MAKE INGREDIENT LISTS CLEARER: Shoppers may turn over a package of food and look for “sugar” on its
ingredient list. What that consumer may not know is that “sugar” could be listed as maltose, dextrose,
sucrose, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey or a variety of
fruit juice concentrates, among other ways.
“Tiny type, complex names, and confusing formats make many ingredient lists almost impossible to read or
understand,” Kessler says. He added, “If we instead defined all forms of sugar as a single ingredient,
sugar might emerge near the top of many products’ lists.”
—CREATE A DAILY VALUE FOR SUGAR: Though public health specialists have overwhelmingly praised the FDA’s
proposed addition of an “added sugars” line that would distinguish from naturally occurring sugars,
Kessler says the agency needs to include a line suggesting how much sugar people should eat daily.
The FDA has said they didn’t include a line because there is no accepted recommendation for how much
sugar should be consumed on a daily basis.
—PUT LABELS ON THE FRONT, TOO: The FDA said in 2009 that it was developing proposed nutritional standards
that would have to be met before manufacturers place claims on the fronts of packages. That effort has
since stalled as the industry has said it is working on its own standards, a move that has frustrated
public health advocates.
Kessler proposes front-of-package labels that would list the top three ingredients, the calorie count and
the number of additional ingredients in bold type.
FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman says the agency is still working on a front-of-pack label, but is
monitoring what industry is doing.
—GIVE THE LABELS SOME CONTEXT: At a recent public meeting, several experts told the FDA they would
endorse a version of the nutrition facts label that would sort nutrients by “get enough” and “avoid too
much.” The FDA offered that version as a second option in February’s proposal.
Dr. Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health said sorting nutrients that way is easier for people
to understand than reading the column that lists the percent of the daily recommended value of a
Pepin Tuma of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agreed, saying “nobody wants to do math.”
The food industry protested. Telling shoppers what they should get enough of and what they should avoid
“goes beyond just the facts,” said Donna Garren of the American Frozen Food Institute.