By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow
Last week, the FDA announced its intent to crack down on Front-of-Package labeling touting the nutritional benefits of food products, a trend that has spread across the aisles of grocery stores in recent months. While easy-to-read, concise nutrition information can make it easier for consumers to choose healthy products, these claims can also be misleading – sugar-laden, nutritionally bereft cereals such as Cookie Crisp, Cocoa Krispies, and Froot Loops are currently self-identifying as “Smart Choices.” Such information on the front of a package proves particularly problematic because, as FDA research found, when food items contain Front of Package Labeling, consumers are less likely to read the full Nutrition Facts label.
The trouble with the current, “anything goes,” state of Front-of-Package Labeling became apparent this summer, when a consortium of big-name food manufacturers – including ConAgra, General Mills, and Kraft Foods – launched their Smart Choices Program, which identifies “healthy” options with a green checkmark on the front. The problem with “Smart Choices?” Many of the choices are not, nutritionally speaking, “smart” – as consumers, nutrition experts, and several elected officials have noted.
In September, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D–CT) sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Hamburg urging that the Administration investigate the “Smart Choices” program. Earlier this month, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal launched his own investigation.
Last Tuesday, Commissioner Hamburg shared the steps that FDA is taking to make Front of Package labeling an accurate, useful tool for consumers:
- FDA is examining existing Front-of-Package labels and identifying those that are false or misleading.
- FDA is drafting a new regulation that will provide a single set of science- and nutrition-based criteria for all Front-of-Package labels.
- FDA is launching a consumer research program to determine how consumers view these symbols and which provide the most useful nutritional information.
- FDA will work with manufacturers, retailers, and other parties to determine if a single Front-of-Package labeling system could be used, as it is in the United Kingdom.
NCL believes that when sugary breakfast cereals such as Froot Loops can be – and are – advertised as healthy options for the consumer, the time has come to impose some consumer-friendly standards. The National Consumers League applauds the FDA for demanding better truth in advertising and pushing for more accurate nutrition information. NCL will continue to support the agency in this work.
Also, in May, the FDA sent a letter to General Mills warning the company about its use of drug-like claims on Cheerios boxes, after the National Consumers League alerted the agency of the practice.