Thanks to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, we as consumers have easy access to the nutritional information for most of the foods we can purchase in a grocery store. As they say, information is power -- but that power is weakened by several flaws in our labeling system. Research suggests that women and men who use nutrition labels have a lower body mass index than those who don't, so there is clear value in understanding what that fine print is really saying. These are five fairly simple ways to improve the usefulness of our food labeling.
Emphasize serving sizes and calories
There are not many regulations on how food manufacturers need to define servings, as shown by soda bottles with 2.5 servings and single muffins with three servings. Recent research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shows that people were able to more accurately gauge the healthfulness of a product if the nutrition facts panel was reformatted to show not only the nutritional information for one serving but also for the entire package in a parallel column. Making this small tweak will make it harder for food manufacturers to fool consumers by shrinking serving sizes.
Highlight added sugars
Considering that Americans consume on average more than 22 teaspoons of sugar per day (more than twice the American Heart Association's recommended intake), everyone's eyes should be immediately drawn to the sugar content on a nutrition facts panel. But some products, mainly fruit and dairy products, contain naturally-occurring sugars that should be separated from added sugars. Creating a new line for "added sugars" in the nutrition facts panel under sugar would go a long way in clarifying this issue, and the language will reinforce that the issue is with the added sweetener.
Clarify ingredient lists
The ingredients list is where you can find out the most detailed information about a product, so it's quite a shame that the text is so small and that this information is so often ignored. Many people know that the ingredients are listed in order, but many do not -- simply adding the percentage by weight of all the ingredients and making the font size a little bit bigger would go a long way toward making this resource more useful.
Find a solution for front-of-package labeling
There has been much deliberation about how to best summarize nutrition information on the front of a package. There are several systems in place now, some that summarize specific nutrient information and others that provide a particular symbol for products that meet specific guidelines, but we are in need of a compulsory set of guidelines. Some type of consistent front-of-package labeling would help consumers when they need to make quick choices or wish to compare products -- even a fairly simple "red light, green light" system has been shown in research to decrease the purchase of "red beverages" and increase purchases of "green" ones -- but figuring out what kind of system to use quickly becomes complicated when considering how best to summarize the information and even what information should be included.
A committee assembled by the Institute of Medicine suggested a plan that would address calories and serving size along with saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium. Under their system, a food product could obtain up to three points, displayed as check marks, based on qualifying criteria for those nutrients. New York Times columnist and food writer Mark Bittman has proposed a different type of front-of-package labeling that would go farther than just summarizing nutritional information. He devised a point system (that would correlate with a red, yellow, or green color) determined by nutrition, "foodness," and welfare. The "foodness" score would be a fairly subjective measure of how close the food is to a natural state, and the welfare score would depend on a variety of factors about the manufacturer, including how well the company treats its employees and the environment through its practices.
While I think the Institute of Medicine committee's proposal is more straightforward and will be difficult enough to bring to fruition, Bittman's idea of educating the consumer about the company they're supporting is an important one, and I hope we find a way to do that in the near future.
Expand the scope of labeling
Currently, several categories of products are exempt from the nutrition label requirement, and removing these exemptions for meat products and produce would go a long way toward helping a consumer make better choices. It's tough for many people to remember off the top of their head which cuts of beef are the leanest, for example, and having a nutrition facts panel would let consumers easily compare different options. The same is true for produce. While you can't exactly put a nutrition facts panel on an apple, the information could be listed on the produce signs along with a front-of-package symbol. Anything to emphasize the nutrient density of produce should be implemented.
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