Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling: The Push for Regulation

Washington, D.C.—In October, The Institute of Medicine (IOM) released the first report of a two-phase study examining nutrition rating systems and symbols on front-of-package (FOP) labeling. This first report details the nutrition science basis for FOP labeling systems and concludes that FOP labeling systems ought to reference serving size, calorie information, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium to effectively assist consumers in making healthful food choices.

Currently, FOP labeling is unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The fact that manufacturers determine FOP nutrition labels has prompted critics to argue that the various nutrition labeling systems confuse and misinform consumers. For example, one research study focusing on “low carbohydrate” FOP labeling found that “low-carbohydrate claims led to more favorable perceptions about products’ helpfulness for weight management, healthfulness and caloric content.” This study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, indicates that consumers misattribute a product’s overall nutrition quality to the particular nutrients listed on FOP labels. In the case of “low carb” FOP labels, other important nutrients are not additionally listed on FOP labels, which results in the consumer’s misinformed equation of “low carbohydrate” automatically with “nutritious.”

Advocates of FOP regulation argue that for consumers to make informed food choices, they must receive nutritional information that is “clear, consistent and well-grounded in nutrition science,” which would eliminate manufacturers’ sway on selective FOP labeling. Added and natural sugars are oftentimes not referenced in FOP labeling even though this nutrient can cause dietary-related health risks. Some advocates are pressing for sugars to be displayed on FOP labels right next to calories, fats and sodium.

FOP labeling is proven to be more influential in the shopping process than “Nutrition Facts” side-panel labeling, which is regulated by the FDA. Because of this, the need for a standardized FOP labeling system is certainly apparent. The results from the IOM’s two-phase study are likely to influence the framework for a voluntary FOP labeling system to be proposed by FDA next year.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2010 (published ahead of print on November 1, 2010)