FDA seeks to improve nutrition labeling on food products

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The federal government is wading into the supermarket aisle, making its first effort to provide better nutritional information on food products since it developed the black-and-white Nutrition Facts label 15 years ago.

Margaret A. Hamburg, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said Tuesday that shoppers are bombarded by slogans ("Heart Healthy," "Good for You," "A Better Choice") on products and that the government needs to set standards and knock down spurious claims.

"As a mother of two who frequently finds herself racing down the grocery aisle hoping to grab foods that are healthy for my family, I would welcome the day that I can look on the front of packages and see nutrition information I can trust and use," she said. "As the commissioner of FDA, I see it as my responsibility, and the responsibility of this administration, to help make that happen."

Hamburg said consumers often do not have time to scan the Nutrition Facts label, which is required on the back of products. And in recent years, foodmakers have increasingly been putting their own symbols and labels on the front of packages, providing nutrition cheat sheets that are not always accurate, she said.

The FDA grew particularly concerned in late August, when a consortium of major foodmakers, including ConAgra Foods, Kellogg's and Unilever, rolled out their Smart Choices Program. The system, "designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices," raised eyebrows when the green check-mark label appeared on Cocoa Krispies, Froot Loops and other foods that are not typically noted for their nutritional value.

"There are products that have gotten the check marks that are almost 50 percent sugar," said Hamburg, who sent a letter to industry Tuesday outlining the FDA's intentions. "Products with symbols stating they provide a high percentage of daily vegetable requirements and other nutrients but neglect to mention they represent 80 percent of your daily fat allowance. There are those with zero percent trans fats on the front [label] but don't indicate that they contain very high percentages of saturated fats."

Some retailers have created their own ranking systems.

The result is a "completely chaotic system" in which "food companies have set up their own nutritional criteria for evaluating products and then apply it and then -- guess what? -- lots of their products qualify," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University.

Industry labels can mislead shoppers, she said. "Consumers think 'I like the way this product tastes' and 'Oh, good, it's got Vitamin D in it. It's got antioxidants in it. It must be terrific for me. I don't need to give another thought to all the sugar it has.' It gives them an excuse to buy the product. And marketers know this."

Hamburg said one of the reasons the FDA wants to improve nutrition labeling is because the nation is fighting an obesity epidemic. "Two out of every three adults is overweight or obese," she said. "We know people want information that will help them quickly and easily make healthy choices."

She said that the FDA intends to crack down on food companies that are making assertions on the front of their products that suggest they are healthier than they really are and that the agency will create a uniform labeling system by the end of next year. Within three months, the FDA will propose new standards that manufacturers must meet to make a nutritional claim on the front of a product, agency officials said.

Mike Hughes, chairman of the Smart Choices Program, said in a statement that the labeling system was based on federal dietary guidelines and sound nutrition.

"We believe in the science behind the Smart Choices Program," he wrote. "We also look forward to the opportunity to participate in FDA's initiatives on front-of-package labeling. And we note that the Smart Choices Program complies with all U.S. laws and regulations."

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