The FDA's Food Label Flaws

WideModern_CholesterolLabel_061313.jpgThese days many consumers rely on the “Nutrition Facts” labels on the back of food products to count calories, check fat content and decide if what they’re eating is healthy. These labels aren’t perfect, though, and with that in mind, the Food and Drug Administration has a rule under consideration to revamp the labeling requirements. The rule’s main goal is to update the label to reflect the latest scientific evidence on nutrition.

The need to update the recommended daily values presented the FDA with a unique opportunity to genuinely improve the overall label design and to increase the nutrition label’s use and health impact. Unfortunately, the FDA’s proposal wasted the opportunity, instead opting for marginal design changes unsupported by any empirical evidence. For example, in support of the label redesign, the rule cites only one study that examines just two of the 13 proposed changes. Interestingly, the study finds no empirical support for the FDA’s decision to increase the font size for calories, as it had no impact on consumers’ choices. Nevertheless, the FDA decided to proceed with its proposal to increase the prominence of calories on the label.

In addition, the FDA proposes to insert a declaration for “added sugars” – which are classified as “sugars and syrups that are added to foods during processing or preparation” – under the line for total sugar content, with the goal of reducing obesity. The agency hopes that by highlighting added sugars, the label would attract consumers’ attention to not only high calories, but also poor nutritional qualities of some foods and lead them to reconsider their choices. However, the FDA offers no empirical evidence supporting its decision.

With the food labeling rule, the FDA has a chance to impact the nation’s growing nutrition related health problems. Poor diets are linked to the obesity epidemic and various chronic diseases. Better nutrition labeling could help consumers make healthier food choices and ultimately improve the nation’s health. Unfortunately, the agency’s low quality analysis makes it unlikely that the rule will improve public health.

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