The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New food labels could help you make smarter choices. Or not.

A customer looks at refrigerated items at a Grocery Outlet store in Pleasanton, Calif., on Sept. 15. (Terry Chea/AP)

For decades, the federal government has tried a variety of gimmicks to get Americans to eat healthier. It is a worthy goal; diet-related illness is the top cause of death in the United States. Yet many federal efforts, such as the heavily criticized and now-defunct food pyramid, have not worked. The nation holds the highest number of obese adults in the world, and chronic diseases such as diabetes continue to exact a massive toll in treatment costs and suffering.

Now the Biden administration is proposing a new strategy, rethinking the standards governing when food can be labeled “healthy” and proposing new nutrition labels that would appear on the front of food boxes. Reforms such as these could help demystify food aisles for the large number of Americans whose grasp of healthy eating is rudimentary, or worse. Or they could just confuse people and invite controversy.

Outdated standards on when food producers can claim their products are healthy exclude some of the best things people can eat, such as nuts, seeds and salmon. The Food and Drug Administration proposed last week to emphasize consumption of fruit, vegetables, dairy and whole grains. Foods with large amounts of added sugar, sodium and saturated fat would be disqualified. Though there is still some controversy — for example, long-running concern about saturated fat might not be warranted — these new standards better reflect current dietary science and common sense.

More contentious is the Biden administration’s plan to develop a front-of-package labeling system, which could deter consumers from buying unhealthy foods. Governments elsewhere have experimented with the idea for years. Chile, for example, requires black warning signs to appear on foods that contain high amounts of sugar, sodium, saturated fat or calories. The Biden administration points to studies suggesting that these schemes encourage people to cut the amount of bad-for-you ingredients in what they buy. New labeling might also nudge food companies to formulate more healthful options.

Yet the FDA would have to do things just right for this plan to pay off. For instance, foodmakers would have little incentive to reformulate their products if front-of-box labeling were optional.

The Biden administration foresees a simple star-rating or traffic-light scheme, which could not only communicate that certain foods are risky but also show consumers which options are healthier. But distilling complex and contentious food science research into simple labels has proved hard. Basing ratings on the presence or absence of a few different nutrients risks encouraging foodmakers to create highly processed frankenfoods that rate well but are not particularly healthy. Building a more complex algorithm that takes account of many factors — say, vitamin or fiber content, the amount of processing, the presence or absence of added sugars — might make results harder to game. But efforts such as these have sometimes resulted in questionable outcomes — chips and other junk food scoring higher than some canned fruit, for example.

It would be a public health triumph if the FDA discovered the formula that ranks every food according to its underlying nutritional value — or even came up with rough but reliable approximations. But if it fails, best not to confuse consumers with traffic lights that lead people in the wrong direction.

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