Food nutrition labels tend to whisper, not scream. That's one reason it's easy to get hooked by blaring marketing on a granola bar before realizing that, nutritionally, it's a candy bar. Or before realizing that those organic blue corn tortillas are basically equivalent to Doritos. It's why sugary cereals trumpet their whole grain content and often trumped-up health claims top parents ("boosts your child's immune system," being one that consumer advocates have ridiculed recently) while heavily marketing the fun factor to kids. And, it's why the Center for Science in the Public Interest has proposed a radical rewriting of labeling: Nutrition information that screams.
It seems hard to believe because they've become so ubiquitous, but nutrition fact labels, with their calorie counts and lists of essential nutrients, have only been standardized since 1994.
The Food and Drug Administration seems to have its attention not on the back-of-label nutrition information, but the front-of-label marketing claims. It has recently cracked down on pseudo-medical claims like Cheerios reducing cholesterol, and its announcement of a review was enough to kill the dubious 'Smart Choices' labeling instituted by the food industry itself. Not surprisingly, many consumer and health advocates had heavily criticized the industry effort for such obvious missteps as labeling Froot Loops a healthy choice.
So what would the advocates at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have food labels look like? Well, for one, the days of those dubious health claims would come to an end, as would the use of more common terms that even savvy customers might misinterpret. Did you know that "high in fiber" often means high in maltodextrin or other isolated fibers ("faux-fibers" to CSPI), and not necessarily fiber that's nutritionally beneficial? Did you know phrases like "made with whole wheat" are frequently used when only 1% or 2% of a product contains whole grains?
But the group would not stop there. The new labels would:
"So many packaged foods are little more than white flour, fat, sugar, salt and additives in various combinations, yet they are marketed as modern-day medical miracles, offering vague benefits for virtually every part of the body," said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. "The FDA has recently challenged some especially egregious health claims, such as the exaggerated cholesterol-reduction claims on Cheerios. But the agency should put a permanent stop to a wide range of other deceptive claims."
So what would these nutrition labels look like? Take a look, then tell us if you think the FDA should take this proposal seriously (click on either image to download a larger image in pdf format):
Here's a quick illustration of common nutrition labeling tricks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest:
Here's how the Consumer for Science in the Public Interest would like to see food packaging nutrition labels re-designed:
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