New York Times Article on Food Labels
In an interesting article by Tara Parker-Pope, food labels get a new look. A consumer advocacy group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest proposes giving the standard food labels a makeover. Miss Parker-Pope does a nice job illustrating what the new food labels would look like and itemizes how each of these changes would occur.
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act passed almost twenty years ago and is the law governing the descriptions that we now read on the foods we buy. Many of us have noted the problems with food labeling and my pet peeve has always been that food producers can still play fast and loose by choosing ridiculously small serving sizes and thus offering a misleading low amount of calories and carbohydrates. The new food labels would put calorie and serving size information in larger type at the top of the label. It would make changes in the ingredient list by separating them with bullets instead of allowing all the ingredients to run together. Similar ingredients would be grouped together and their percentage shown by weight. Miss Parker-Pope notes this would be especially important for sugars including things like sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and grape juice from concentrate, all of which are forms of sugar that would be listed under a catch-all heading of sugars. In addition, the new labeling proposal would add the word “high” if a particular food had more than 20% of the daily recommended allowance for fat, sugar, sodium or cholesterol. It would also display the percentage of whole grains contained in the product. The proposed food label would also list the milligrams of caffeine contained in the product.
All in all, the new label makes some improvements. It will highlight the serving size more prominently and make is somewhat less easy to mislead consumers with unrealistically small serving sizes chosen. It is unlikely, however, to end this practice. The recommendations though do make a good deal of sense and highlighting which products are “high” in fat, sugar, sodium and cholesterol may help consumers make better decisions.
These recommendations do make a big assumption that fat, cholesterol, sugar and sodium are all similarly important to highlight and presumably for consumers to reduce or control consumption for these nutrients. It’s not entirely clear that is in fact the case. The best evidence would certainly suggest that calories alone would be the most important thing to highlight and control followed closely by sugars. For some people, especially those with hypertension, controlling sodium also makes sense. Controls on consumed fat and consumed cholesterol may be a bit harder to justify from a scientific basis, but the concept may have some validity. It does confuse body fat and serum cholesterol with consumed fat and consumed cholesterol and the link is not nearly as clear in science as such labeling would suggest.
Nonetheless, I support the proposed labeling makeover for the most part. In my position as head of organizations aimed at combating obesity and preventing childhood obesity, I would like to see greater emphasis placed on highlighting the serving size and preventing food manufacturers from choosing misleading and unrealistically low serving sizes. I would also like to see more emphasis on calories and sugar and less emphasis on consumed fat, cholesterol and caffeine, none of which have anywhere near the kind of impact on obesity and diabetes as calories and sugars.
What are your thoughts?