Proposed Nutrition Label Changes Aren't Good Enough, Says Former FDA Head

Proposed Nutrition Labels Are Too Hard To Understand
Former head of FDA says nutrition labels aren't clear enough to read or encourage healthy eating. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

If you’ve ever read a nutrition label and have found information on it you didn’t understand, you’re not alone. Experts agree they don’t help educate consumers or communicate ingredients. After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed two different versions of the revised nutrition facts labels, former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler and other health policy experts published their criticism in The New England Journal of Medicine.

In Kessler’s perspective, “Toward More Comprehensive Food Labeling,” he concluded the labels fall short of influencing healthy food choices that promote health and reduce obesity. The FDA’s goal of selling healthier food will not be achieved if they don’t heed his warning and reevaluate the labels’ shortcomings because they are competing with commercials, billboards, and print advertisements to lure children and adult consumers alike.

"The food industry is expert at promoting its food in a captivating manner, so the FDA has very heavy competition for the consumer's eye," Kessler said reflecting about when he was in charge. “Our goal was not to dictate behavior, but to give people accurate, easy-to-read information that encouraged them to make healthier food choices.”

The FDA proposed their new food labels in February, which would be the first time they updated the label requirements in two decades. They made calorie counts more prominent, created a new section to include added sugars, and create servings that would more accurately reflect the amount people normally ate instead of uniformly presenting portion sizes.

In March, the Grocery Manufacturers Association said the FDA's new label proposal was "critical that any changes are based on the most current and reliable science. Equally as important is ensuring that any changes ultimately serve to inform, and not confuse, consumers." Confusion is a frequently noted problem of the nutrition labels. "It's a bunch of technical terms — saturated fat and cholesterol and dietary fiber. What do those mean? Are these numbers high or low, good or bad, what do you do with it?" said Micheal Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The unveiling of terms such as maltose, dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup may elusively camouflage themselves from consumers' eyes, since most are unaware these are all actually different forms of sugar. "Tiny type, complex names, and confusing formats make many ingredient lists almost impossible to read or understand," Kessler said. "If we instead defined all forms of sugar as a single ingredient, sugar might emerge near the top of many products' lists."

Kessler wants to see a more comprehensive overhaul with the top three ingredients, calorie count, and number of additional ingredients listed in bold on the front of all food packages.

Experts also suggest creating a section more easily discernible for people to read, such as how much daily percentage they should have of a certain ingredient, and have it placed right next to how much is actually included in the food’s package. Public comments are opened and encouraged until Aug. 1, according to an FDA spokeswoman.

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