A mock-up of the proposed new label

Food labels are notoriously hard to read and often difficult to understand. A newly-proposed bill in Congress seeks to change all that. It would create a single, standard front-of-package label, require greater disclosure of sugar and caffeine content, and define how common claims such as "natural" and "healthy" can be used. 

The Food Labeling Modernization Act is being introduced by three Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), with backing from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

"In the Bizzaro world of Superman comics, up is down, day is night, and things are generally the inverse of what they are in reality," said Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI's executive director in a prepared statement. "Regrettably, when harried dads and moms plow their shopping carts down supermarket aisles, they encounter a similar, strange world: One where 'whole grain' waffles can be made mostly of white flour, where 'all natural' granola bars can have factory-refined high maltose corn syrup, and where artery-clogging ice cream bars can cheerfully boast of their lack of trans fats."

The bill's sponsors argue that major labeling requirements, last updated in 1990 and, in some cases, the 1930s, are in need of major changes to deliver the consistent, clear information that Americans need to combat the obesity crisis and make healthier choices.

The bill would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a single, standard front-of-package nutrition labeling system for all food products that are required to carry nutrition labeling. 

Comparison of current food label and the proposed new label. Source: CSPI

Children at risk

“Childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years and is a huge public health problem in this country that puts millions of American children at risk. Healthy eating is critical to combating this epidemic," said Rep. Pallone. "That is why it is so important that when families make the effort to eat nutritious, healthy food, the labels on food products help them make the right choices—not confuse or mislead them.” 

Sen. Blumenthal said food labels are often "deceptive."

“Grocery stores throughout the country are filled with products that bear labels with deceptive dietary information,” Blumenthal said. “The Food Labeling Modernization Act updates laws that haven’t been touched since 1930s, ensuring that consumers will know what they’re eating and parents will know what they’re feeding their kids.”

Terms defined

The bill would established definitions for the terms "healthy" and "natural" and would require that any product using the "whole grain" claim conspicuously post the amount of whole grain (as a percentage of total grain) on the label. 

It would also:

  • Require the daily values for calories and sugar, as well as the amount of any artificial sweeteners, to be listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
  • Require any product containing an amount of food reasonably consumed on a single occasion to state on the label that a single package contains one serving size.
  • Require disclosure of the amount of caffeine in the product, if it exceeeds 10 milligrams. 
  • Require the Secretary to issue comprehensive guidance for industry clarifying the scientific support needed to prevent false or misleading information.

Industry's counter-campaign

No one expects anything to happen anytime soon. Any attempt to impose new regulations on the food and drug industries turns into a long process. The food industry is expert and experienced at getting its way and has already launched its own program to simplify and standardize food labels.

Called Facts Up Front, the industry program is supported by a $50 million marketing campaign that touts it as an easy way for consumers to pick out healthy foods. But critics say it actually makes matters worse by allowing companies to highlight positive, marketable nutrients like fiber and protein, rather than listing only calories, saturated and trans fats and sodium content.

Many observers see the industry campaign as an effort to head off legislation like that introduced by Blumenthal et al.

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