Food manufacturers and grocers have announced yet another initiative to improve displays of nutritional information on food packages. Data about calorie-, fat-, sodium- and sugar content will no longer be buried in the fine print of the traditional Nutrition Facts labels on the back of bags, cans and boxes but will be moved to a more prominent place on the front.
Industry leaders say they’re only responding to the wishes of America’s first lady, Michelle Obama, who has made the fight against our national obesity crisis one of her priorities. Mrs. Obama has indeed called for “clear and consistent” labeling policies that allow consumers to make better-informed decisions about their diets.
A New Initiative by the Food Industry
To Make Nutrition Labels More Consumer-Friendly
The Obama administration has argued that consumers should not only have easy access to relevant information about the food they eat, they should also be explicitly warned about the potentially detrimental health effects of certain ingredients, such as fat, sodium and sugar. The food industry, on the other hand, wants to be able to put more emphasis on the benefits from healthy ingredients, such as protein and vitamins. In the spirit of compromise, the new panels will supposedly address both issues, allowing for the side-by-side display of negative and positive characteristics.
A similar strategy failed two years ago when an earlier initiative, called “Smart Choices,” was abandoned after the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) criticized it for endorsing some products that were clearly not recommended by nutrition- and health experts.
This time around, food manufacturers decided to take matters in their own hands, with or without government approval. The decision to switch to new label designs at this time is widely considered as an effort to influence future government guidelines, which could force the industry’s hand as early as this or next year.
While manufacturers like to say they are acting in support for Mrs. Obama’s national campaign for healthier eating, the White House has so far been hesitant to applaud their efforts. Nutrition experts have pointed out that the new displays are no less confusing to the layperson than the old versions because much of the information is taken out of context. If the data don’t make sense to the average consumer, it doesn’t matter where they are placed or how big the letters are they’re printed in.
This criticism seems justified. While it is a good idea to revise the traditional Nutrition Facts panels and put the more important parts in a visible spot, it is also true that posting a few isolated numbers about calorie- and fat content won’t help unless people know how these relate to their existing eating habits. Also, not all calories are equal when you take nutritional benefits into account. From a dietary perspective, 500 calories from fresh fruit are much more valuable than 500 calories from, let’s say, cookies or ice cream.
Another unresolved concern is apportionment. It has long been an issue of contention how food manufacturers determine serving sizes. The content of packaged items is not always equivalent to one serving. In fact, there are typically several servings in one container. But for most folks, a regular bag of potato chips is what they eat. They don’t divvy it up to stay within the recommended limits. Obviously, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The first lady was reportedly more pleased with a recent announcement of Wal-Mart to include healthier food choices in its merchandise. Sodium-, fat- and sugar content are all to be reduced by double-digit percentages over the next few years. Trans-fats, already removed from many foods, are to be phased out completely. The company also intends to reduce prices for fresh produce and provide more outlets in so-called food-deserts, which persist in many low-income communities.
Wal-Mart is undoubtedly to be applauded for this step. The impact can be significant, considering that more people buy their groceries at Wal-Mart than anywhere else. Of course, this can also be read as a smart move to win over more health-conscious customers who typically shop at Whole Foods and the likes.
Unfortunately, however, it will be hard to keep prices for fresh food items affordable. Costs for produce have risen dramatically over recent years and the trend continues. Even an industry giant like Wal-Mart may not be able to change that. The slogan, “You must be healthy to be wealthy,” may continue to describe a sad truth.