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Do we really need front-of-package nutrition labels?

I confess: I'm one of those obnoxious people who creates a menu for the entire week's meals, then shops just for what's on the list. My trips to the grocery store are less about shopping than about simply buying.

So maybe I'm not the target audience for the front-of-package nutrition labels that so many experts seem to think are necessary to steer consumers toward healthful food choices.

As I write in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column, one major label system, Smart Choices, went belly up last week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave notice that it was keeping an eye out for misleading or deceptive messages the program might send to consumers. Smart Choices chose to cease operations and pledged to work with the FDA to develop a universal nutrition labeling system.

Such a system would have the benefit of reducing the mind-numbing clutter of competing health-claim logos currently on supermarket shelves. Having not paid much attention to those logos before, I was shocked when I spent a few hours in the store researching my column to find how many are out there and how difficult it is to make sense of them all.

My response -- and the one experts fear many consumers may have -- is to tune them all out. And while I may be well equipped and willing to take the time to make sense of Nutrition Facts panels and ingredient lists on the back or sides of food packages, many consumers are less equipped and less inclined to bother. This may leave them to make poor choices in the packaged-food aisles.

What do you think of the ratings, codes and logos popping up on food packages? Do you pay attention to them and use them to guide your purchases? Do they make sense to you? Or do you tend to ignore them altogether?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 27, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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One single labeling system might be helpful. If (a) it involved useful information instead of advertising catchwords (vs., say, "lite"); it was consistent and clear (and didn't involve 17 different spellings of "lite" to mean seventeen different things); and it was trustworthy (see (a) above).

I'm not exactly holding my breath.

Posted by: laura33 | October 27, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

We already have a 'universal' labeling system, it's the Nutrition Facts panel on the side or back of the box. Seriously, if people are too lazy to pick up a box and turn it over to look for this information, well that's just too darn bad. Why must we default to catering to the lowest common denominator? It's called personal responsibility, for Pete's sake!

Posted by: falltillfly | October 27, 2009 8:10 AM | Report abuse

The "Nutrition Facts" panel is almost always useless when one tries to compare two similar items like two boxes of cereal due to the almost always differing "serving sizes". I would propose to get rid of the "serving size", which means absolutely nothing and is usually chose by the manufacturer to have one key nutrient below some percieved important threshold. Instead they should just list the protein, carbs, lipids, etc content as percentage by weight.

Posted by: ogs123 | October 27, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Smart Choices Labels Suspended After FDA Warning:

Posted by: Cynthia111 | October 27, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Not everyone is educated enough to understand what '30% of your daily value of sodium' means in the grand scheme of things. Or, to extract the nutrition information into ACTUAL (not specified) serving size. For the more educated consumer group, we'll go right to the labels no matter what logos/pretty pictures are on the front of the box. But for the less educated group (which coincidentally has the most health problems), they are the ones who the logos and pictures are targeting. So instead of having a complicated, hard-to-interpret nutrition panel, it would be helpful to inmplement a simple label that sums up the overall health status of a particular product. Something color-coded (like a 'green' building can be LEED-certified gold, silver, platinum, bronze, etc. based on certain criteria) and based on overall nutrition - so if it's low fat and high in sugar, it doesn't get labeled as more nutritious than the higher fat/lower sugar version. It might also help us get away from misleading and confusing 'benefits' like anti-oxidants when it contains 24 mg of sugar per serving.

Posted by: fat_kitty | October 27, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Even 20 professors won't convince the average RD or mom that Froot Loops, with suagr as ingredient #1, 4 artificial colors, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is a "Smart Choice". Hiding behind federal guidelines is the excuse that the Smart Choices team gives for its wondrous selection of items, but it may also mean that the guidelines should be changed.

The FDA should take a look at what prompted this whole mess - the fact that nutrition facts labels today are incomplete and confusing.

I posted earlier this morning 10 suggestions for the FDA to improve its existing nutrition labeling:

Posted by: Fooducate | October 27, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I can see the benefit of both.
I really like the present system of the nutritional chart and don't want it to be replaced. Removing it or replacing it would be a great disservice to all the people who use it every day. I look at it all the time and I find it very helpful and not confusing at all. How would I begin to accurately compare two diffewrent cerials for instance without it? Please do not remove it.

However, I do know there are people who find it meaningless and confusing. For whatever the reason, they ignore it. Putting a visual equivalent on the front of the box as well as the chart on the side of the box could be helpful for those who are intimated by the chart. The chart gives you the informational details, not complete perhaps but useful, and the visual equivalent would give you, hopefully, an accurate impression of what the chart said in a picture but in less detail. Each person could use what works for them.

Posted by: Belle9 | October 27, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

People are going to buy "bad" food no matter what. No one actually thinks Cinnamon Toast Crunch is good for you, and no one is buying it just because there's some Whole Grain label on it. People eat fatty, sugar filled food because it tastes damn good. Putting some "this will send you to an early grave" label on a box of sugar cereal or labeling a bag of frozen broccoli as "nutritious" is not going to make me buy or not buy either.

Posted by: haether | October 27, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

We can add a letter rating or a bar graph to show the Relative Goodness of the food.
AS a part of the existing back/side location.

Tires have letter rating.
Cars have bar graphs for MPG.
Energy Efficient Appliances have a graph, too.


Posted by: paulrichards | October 27, 2009 7:14 PM | Report abuse

The nutrition facts and the listing of ingredients work just fine. I can even figure it out when I buy foreign products written in another language other than English. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. What it takes is wanting to take responsibility for one's health and following through on learning about impact upon the body by what one eats.

Serving size is VERY important because the information which follows is for a serving size, ergo, if the container is for 2 servings and you eat the whole thing, then you have taken in twice as many calories, etc.

When I grocery shop, nothing goes into that basket that I haven't read the nutrition and ingredients of. Those who don't read the labels and make those healthy choices are in fact those who have the most health problems.

Posted by: dancingtime | October 27, 2009 11:26 PM | Report abuse

The biggest problem, as mentioned by many here, is the serving size. On a 10 oz bag of various yummy chips, the serving size can turn out to be 3 chips! NOBODY opens a bag of chips and eats only 3, and the manufacturer doesn't expect you to - he just makes the print small and inconspicuous, or places it low on the back of the bag, or on the bottom, or maybe he uses "1/2 oz" rather than 3 chips, so if you don't have a scale handy, you estimate... and that's where we all get into trouble! Clearer, more visible lists of ingredients in order of amount, and less ambiguous serving sizes, prominently placed, or perhaps always placed in the same spot on every package of every brand, would definitely be helpful. How many people, dutifully trying to eliminate trans fats from their diets, know that almost EVERY package of processed food, cake or muffin mix, contains some partially hydrogenized oils - which are trans fats? We are all undone by clever packaging and marketing.

Posted by: momcatusa | October 28, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Wow! As a registered dietitian practicing here in Washington, D.C. I'm actually excited to read these thoughtful comments and discuss food labels.

From time to time, I consult with the food and beverage industry and I work with Washingtonians on weight management daily. I also teach at American University.

In my experience, people do read the nutrition facts label and make food decisions based on it (generally, they look for low calorie, low fat, and sodium but it's hard to categorize what "all" do). I definitely support keeping the nutrition facts label. It is a useful tool to help people make decisions about the appropriate portions of foods that come with a label. When I do grocery store tours, I help people focus on the guidance the nutrition facts label can give them, not so much as whether or not to eat it, but how much and how often.

I like the idea of front of package labels, if done correctly... and I think that's the issue here. As others have pointed out, the different "labels and claims and versions of lite" are confusing and more about marketing. The key to effective front-of-package labels is to keep it simple for the average person, so they don’t have to figure out the detailed nutrition facts panels on the back of packages.

For example, if a person could see on the front of a beverage that the bottle contains 100 calories or 300 calories that could make a difference in how much they consume. Right now, they might quickly read the nutrition label and think "okay 100 calories" but if they finish the bottle that's 2-3 servings and that's not what I'd call a balanced portion.

It will be interesting to see what comes up next. Now that the FDA has taken this stance, do they plan to come through with a universal system that has research behind it that it is effective in helping consumers make healthier choices?

As others have pointed out, having a system is better than many confusing labels. It needs to be simple, useful, and evidence-based.

Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, LD

Posted by: DCnutritionXprt | October 28, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

The current system is extremely confusing to most people, but having a front of label system isn't going to help. The location is immaterial -- I will read it wherever they put it. However, the quality of the information needs to be improved. I have noticed that most cereals I consider eating have very similar calories per gram, but they appear to be very different because the serving sizes are different. The information should be presented by weight -- oz or grams -- either will do and conversion isn't that hard. The other aspect of the problem is that information is not necessarily correct. I think "disinformation" would be increased with a "simpler" system. I can't help but remember the day I saw maraschino cherries labeled as a "low carb" food. Are you kidding? "One serving" had 8 calories and 2 grams of sugar. At 4 calories per gram of sugar, that means 100% of the calories are from sugar -- the ultimate carbohydrate. I could write for a couple of hours if I listed all the errors in labeling that I have seen -- both in the "simple" front-of-label information, and the more complex nutritional information. If it isn't correct, it isn't worth much.

Posted by: smischke | October 28, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

It's definitely important to read the ingredients and the Nutrition Facts Panel. But some key information can't necessarily be determined from those two tools alone -- like the amount of whole grain in a product. Last week, the IOM (Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academies of Science) recommended that FDA require all whole grain foods to be labeled with the number of grams of whole grain per serving -- and that only foods with over 8 grams of whole grain per serving should be considered "whole grain-rich."

The Whole Grain Stamp has been doing exactly this -- labeling the grams of whole grain content, with a minimum of 8 grams per serving -- for almost five years. The Stamp is now on almost 3,100 products in 14 countries and has been very helpful in making it easier for people to find whole grain products.

Posted by: CynthiaHarriman | October 30, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

There are two critical things missing from the Nutrition Facts label (and btw I don't care where it is as long as it's easy to read):

1) Country or region of origin. I would like to know if my sliced peaches in syrup are from Georgia, USA, which I naturally assumed, or in fact from...China. Yes, look at the labels. Given the shaky quality control methods over there, I might think twice about putting Chinese-processed foods on my kids' plates.

2) Allergens. Some labels seem to be good about putting allergens on labels, but others it is in very fine print or not on there at all. It should be mandatory on the Nutrition Facts labels.

Neither of these labeling requirements should be onerous at all. A company should know if X is manufactured in a place that also processes peanuts, for example, or whether Y is imported from China or Chile or wherever.

Posted by: jay4811 | November 2, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

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