The links between diet and health, and between obesity and diet-related health problems such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes, are well established. Currently, 35 percent of American adults are categorized as obese, and the rate is projected to reach 44 percent by 2030. Total annual costs attributable to obesity are estimated to range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion. Food labeling policies pertaining to all food distribution venues are critical so that consumers get the information they need to make healthy food choices. These policies should require clear and easily understandable information about the nutrients in food products, as well as their calories.
Current law and policy—existing laws and policies have moved us closer to the goal of providing consumers with useful nutritional information about the foods they consume, while seeking to protect them from false labeling and unsubstantiated claims. Examples include:
- mandatory nutrition labeling on all products regulated by the FDA,
- standards for health and nutrition claims on food labels, and
- requirements for nutrition labeling and standards for claims about meat and poultry products.
The FDA allows food labels to include “qualified” health claims (i.e., those supported by information that does not meet the statutory standard of “significant scientific agreement”). Critics of this policy, including AARP, contend that such claims are inconsistent with current law and may confuse consumers.
Food labeling in restaurants—food labeling in restaurants and fast-food establishments is an increasingly important issue because Americans are eating out more than ever, consuming about one-third of their calories in restaurants. The health consequences of eating out are significant: People typically consume more calories and fat and fewer useful nutrients and fiber when they eat out than when they eat at home. Without realizing it, an individual may consume 50 percent to 100 percent of an entire day’s recommended caloric intake in a single supersized entrée.
Consumers often lack information about the nutritional content (including calorie counts) of restaurant offerings, making it difficult for them to make healthy choices. The Affordable Care Act sought to address this issue by including a requirement for restaurants (other than retail food establishments) and vending machine operations with 20 or more locations to post calorie content on menus and menu boards. Other nutritional information must also be made easily available to customers.
Other labeling issues still need to be addressed at the federal and state levels. For example, to capitalize on consumers’ interest in improving their diet, many food companies want to put claims on food labels and in advertisements touting the presence of healthful ingredients such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. These claims are deceptive and misleading when the product in question contains very little of the desirable ingredient or when it is accompanied by other potentially harmful ingredients, such as excessive sugar.
Healthy Diet/Food Labeling and Advertising: Policy
Raw meat and poultry
The US Department of Agriculture should require nutrition labels for all raw meat and poultry.
As part of ongoing efforts to harmonize international food labeling as well as safety standards, the US government should not allow domestic requirements to be weakened.
In considering what revisions, if any, should be made to the nutrition label to help consumers achieve and maintain a healthy weight, the FDA should sponsor consumer research to determine which label revisions would best convey the key messages about limiting caloric intake.
The federal agencies responsible for food labeling and advertising should adopt consistent standards and definitions for terms and claims that appear on food labels and in advertisements.
The FDA should require that nutrition labels disclose the amount of added sugars in a serving of food, and should establish a daily value for added sugars that should be included on the nutrition label along with the maximum intakes for fat, sodium, and other nutrients. Labels should clearly identify ingredients that actually are sugars by another name.
Food labels should be written in understandable language and printed in a legible type size, font, and color.
Labels in relevant languages should be made available in communities where a language other than English is often used in retail transactions.
States should ensure that shelf labeling (in particular, unit-price labeling) is legible to consumers, including people with poor vision.
Misleading and deceptive claims
Federal agencies should take aggressive action against misleading and deceptive labels and advertisements.
The FDA should reassess the use of “qualified” health claims and promote activities that help consumers understand the scientific support for any claim allowed on a food label.
When labels and advertisements include the presence of healthful ingredients such as whole grains, fruit, and vegetables, they should be required to disclose the actual amount of such ingredients per serving.
Nutritional labeling of restaurant food
Federal and state policymakers should establish a reasonable requirement for nutrition labeling of restaurant food.
Labeling requirements should apply only to restaurants and similar retail food establishments with multiple outlets and to their standard (or recurrent) menu offerings.
Restaurants should list key nutrition information (such as calories, saturated and trans fats, carbohydrates, sugars, and sodium) on menus and menu boards.
The federal government should develop a strategy to assure the public that chain restaurants subject to calorie-disclosure requirements use a reasonable method for calculating their nutrient content information. The federal government should regularly disclose whether or not “reasonable” methods are being used to determine caloric values. It should also establish a mechanism by which consumers can report restaurants that are not complying with the new requirement.