Accurate food labeling and advertising—the links between diet and health, and between obesity and diet-related health problems such as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes, are well established. According to the latest available data from 2015-16, close to 40 percent (39.8) of American adults were 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 (including calorie counts) for all food distribution venues—supermarkets as well as restaurants—are critical so that consumers have 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.
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. But additional policies are needed.
- mandatory nutrition labeling on all products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),
- standards for health and nutrition claims on food labels, and
- requirements for nutrition labeling and standards for claims about meat and poultry products.
Progress is being made, but more needs to be done. For example, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Safety and Inspection Service issued a federal rule requiring nutrition labeling on major cuts of single-ingredient, raw meat and poultry products (i.e., sirloin steak, brisket, whole chicken, etc.). This rule does not require nutrition information for raw meat and poultry products that are not ground or chopped (e.g., beef flank steak, chicken tender, etc.). There should be nutrition requirements for all raw 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 ACA Comprehensive health care reform legislation passed by Congress and signed into law on March 23, 2010. 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. Additional nutritional information must also be made readily available to customers.
In order to capitalize on consumers’ interest in improving their diet, many food companies seek to put claims on food labels and in advertisements touting the presence of healthful ingredients such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. These claims can be 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.
FOOD SAFETY: Policy
As part of ongoing efforts to harmonize international food labeling as well as safety standards, the U.S. government should not allow domestic requirements to be weakened.
Consistent standards and definitions for food
Federal agencies that oversee food labeling and advertising should adopt consistent standards and definitions for terms and claims that appear on food labels and in advertisements.
In considering what revisions, if any, should be made to the nutrition label to help consumers achieve and maintain a healthy weight, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should sponsor consumer research to determine which label revisions would best convey the key messages about limiting caloric intake.
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 are actually sugars by another name.
Easy-to-understand food labels
Food labels should be written in clear, plain, understandable language and printed in 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.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture should require nutrition labels for all raw meat and poultry.
States should enact and enforce laws that require item-price labeling for foods and drugs.
Enforce regulations that prohibit misleading and deceptive claims
Federal agencies should take strong action against misleading and deceptive labeling practices 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 those ingredients per serving.
Nutritional labeling of restaurant food
Federal and state policymakers should establish reasonable requirements for labeling nutritional values of standard menu offerings in restaurants and similar retail food establishments with multiple outlets. 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.