Front-of-Package Labels Reconsidered

Feb. 16, 2010
The obesity battle may move up front, but serving sizes may be the real culprit.

Many Americans pride themselves on carefully pondering, and sometimes actually understanding, the statistics on the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP) to help control and balance their intake of fat, salt and calories. I, however, walk blindly through the supermarket and buy what looks good.

Now, I do (somewhat) understand the individual components. But analyzing them together seems like mumbo jumbo to me, gives me a headache and stresses me so much I can’t enjoy the food. I’m not alone, which may be one of the reasons why I could lose about 20 pounds and why we have a critical obesity problem in the U.S.

To save on health care costs, fighting obesity is now the mantra for the Obama administration and the FDA. To this end, the agency would like to see key nutritional information, including calorie counts, on the front of food packages to combat the small print of the Nutrition Facts Panel. Although such labeling will be voluntary (initially at least), the agency is considering the idea of setting rules to prevent highlighting good attributes, such as "0 grams trans fat," on the front of the package while ignoring less healthy ingredients on the back.

Many believe the agency is focusing on official serving sizes as the culprit — for the most part they are too small, so calorie counts can be misleading. FDA wants consumers to think about the realistic caloric intake of what they’ll be eating before they put the package in their carts. Serving sizes also determine the other nutritional values on the back label – another reason for the agency to look at them carefully.

According the Washington-based International Food Information Council (IFIC), which has -- since 2006 -- studied how consumers use the NFP, serving size and calories are being used “somewhat” by shoppers to see how much they "should" be consuming. Others assume this is "what the average person eats," and many are unaware that this information is in part regulated or determined by the government. Some consumers also look at calories from fat.

When consumers look at the NFP, they check the nutrients that are of interest to them or others for whom they are buying the product. Macronutrients such as fats, sugar and fiber are checked more frequently than vitamins, and consumers rely more on gram information for nutrients rather than percentages (percent DV), which they find "confusing" Some look for specific cut-off values, such as “no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving,” to determine whether the product is "acceptable."

They check vitamin and minerals less often because they find it difficult to evaluate how much of each nutrient they actually need. Furthermore, consumers say the percentages for many vitamins and minerals in a given food seem very low. And because many consumers take multivitamins, they do not feel the need to consider vitamins or minerals in foods and beverages they consume. They also have a hard time calculating the percentages without a reference point. Consumers do not use the DV Footnote and Percent DV very often, in fact, most have no idea what the footnote conveys, according to IFIC.

Most recently, IFIC finds consumers say they have a positive perception of food labels, but suggest they could be improved. Mentioning a government body, like the FDA, in a prominent area (the header) of the NFP increases consumer trust in the information provided, particularly serving size; moving the location of calories into the main body of the NFP encourages greater use of the information; adding the percent DV of calories helps consumers consider the product’s calorie contribution within their daily diet; and moving the information in the current footnote into an easily referenced column in the main body of the NFP greatly increases consumers’ ability to evaluate the product.

OK, let's clutter up the front of the package, rather than simplifying the NFP, which to me is like an instruction booklet for my computer -- incomprehensible. Listing calories on the package front won’t make a bit of difference to me; I can ignore that just as I ignore the NFP.

I’d rather blithely wander the supermarket aisles, enjoy the sensory experience, eat what I like and hope the FDA concentrates its funding on food safety instead of serving sizes and calories.

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