Thursday, May 6, 2010

The FDA needs your advice!

Interesting news from the Greenhabilitator...

Moi? Little ol' me?

That's right! The FDA has issued a call for comments on package labeling. They'd like to better understand what you think of current front-of-package labeling (and shelf tags) and what changes you'd like to see. More specifically, they're looking for "Data and information on the extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand nutrition symbols on front-of-pack labeling of food packages or on shelf tags in retail stores..." With this, they plan to revise front-of-pack standards in order to "maximize the number of consumers who readily notice, understand, and use point-of-purchase information to make more nutritious choices for themselves and their families."

I don't know about you, but I don't even bother to read the fronts of packages. To me, it's just a platform for the manufacturers to advertise stretched truths. If I actually want to know about the product, I turn the package over to look at the nutritional information and ingredients instead.

Case in point: the "Smart Choice" label that is currently being removed from products with questionable nutrition like Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops. (These and other "sugar cereals" claimed to boost the immune systems of children.) Smart Choice was supposed to be a symbol consumers could spot and instantly know that they were eating something nutritious. With standards that were way too lenient, it became a marketing tool instead.

The Journal of the American Medical Association explains "Research suggests that consumers believe front-of-package claims, perceive them to be government-endorsed, and use them to ignore the Nutrition Facts Panel."

Consider some of the claims you see on package fronts, taken from Dr. Sears' website~

"Made with real fruit" is a good example of a misleading claim. The law does not require the label to say how much real fruit is in the product. This boast is particularly prevalent in snacks for children, which may contain a grape or two in a snack that is otherwise mostly sugar. 

"Made with whole grains" is another little, "white" label lie. The consumer is led to believe that this is a whole-grain cereal or waffle, yet the package label is not legally required to say how much "whole grain" is in the product. Its main ingredient could be refined flour with just a small amount of whole wheat added. So, the food won't contain all the fiber and other nutrients associated with whole grains.

"Natural" is probably the least trustworthy of all the label terms. While the term "natural" sounds appealing, it really says little about the nutritional quality of the food, or even its safety. In reality, "natural" is empty of nutritional meaning. Consumers believe that "natural" means the food is pretty much as Mother Nature grew it, but this is seldom the case. And even then, "natural" is not the same as nutritious, or good for you. The fat marbling in a New York strip steak is "natural," but it's not good for your arteries.

In March, I attended the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, where I sat on a panel of consumers discussing what we look for in products. The panel consisted of 5 women who were interested in green living, natural products and healthy eating.

As it turned out, we represented all points along the spectrum from hard-core foodies who never set foot in a mainstream grocery store, to a member just becoming interested in healthy living who shopped for food at Big Lots. She explained how she looks for foods that say reduced fat, all natural, or make other types of healthy-sounding claim, but that she doesn't necessarily turn the box over to learn more.

The biggest realization I took from the experience was that some of us are pretty well-educated consumers, some are less so, but we are all consumers nonetheless and we all want to eat well. Labels should not be decipherable only by the most discerning consumer, they need to be understood by everyone -- especially those who can't or don't flip over a box or bag and read between the lines of the nutritional information.

If you have an idea on how to make this happen, you can share it with the FDA here. It's not often that the government sincerely asks for our input on something like this, so let's all take the opportunity to let them know what we think!


Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I think part of the problem is that there are so many differences of opinion out there about what is healthy and what's not. I can't tell you how many times I've called my husband from the grocery store and said, "Do I believe the government, or do I believe the real food advocates?"...Should we be drinking whole milk or skim milk? Should we eat full fat hamburger or lean hamburger? Are eggs good for us or bad for us? Should our diet be heavy in grains or not? At least we can all agree that we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

Kathryn Grace said...

Thank you so much for reminding us to weigh in with the FDA on this important subject.

Food Politics author Marion Nestle shows a very good suggestion for front package labeling on her blog post Food Agencies at Work (or Not): FDA.

I'd go for that one if it were up to me.

Kellie said...

@Erin ~ I agree! I'm leaning towards the side of taking claims off the front of packages altogether, but am open to ideas.

@Kathryn Grace ~ Thanks for the link, since I'm undecided at this point, I look forward to reading others thoughts on the subject.


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