Due to the work of the Facts Up Front campaign, today’s food products are marked with labels that advertise their nutrition facts. You have most likely seen them as the small snapshot of information on the front corners of products like cereal and bread. While this is a promising health campaign, consumers should be wary because these labels can often be misleading.
Facts Up Front was primarily developed by leaders in the food industry to help grocery shoppers like you and me easily identify nutritious food, when we may not have the time to read an entire Nutrition Facts panel.
Consumers seeking nutritional information should take a closer look at nutrition labels, as sometimes the food industry has been remiss in keeping honesty at the forefront of their labeling and marketing of products. Several years ago, one labeling campaign called “Smart Choices,” promoted sugar-laden, highly processed products as healthy options. Programs like Smart Choices, which had lenient criteria for what was considered “healthy,” lacked credibility and soon disappeared. Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health, said that the less healthy products that were given the Smart Choices’ seal of approval were in fact, “horrible choices.” As consumer advocates, we would like to see the food industry put the health of consumers at the heart of their new and improved labeling system.
Currently, Facts Up Front labels are only used by food companies that choose to display nutrition facts on the front of their packaging, which also raises some red flags. Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, stated that Facts Up Front’s “voluntary nature means you may not see it on junk foods. And even if you did, it wouldn’t successfully highlight the food’s unhealthfulness.” There is no breakdown of the label information until you search online for Facts Up Front or a nutrition information website. The Facts Up Front labels show only the amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar per serving on product packaging. The campaign may only display information about up to two nutrients or vitamins on front-of-packaging labels if the products meet FDA standards of a “good source,” which applies to foods that have 10 to 19 percent of the recommended daily value of a specific nutrient. The fact is, it is difficult for consumers to use these labels intuitively to make a “healthy decision,” which is what the campaign aims to accomplish.
The quick, simple informational element of this campaign requires more intensive public nutrition education, because it is clear that misleading nutrition marketing can, and does, occur. Facts Up Front can use the help of health marketing research, such as the Institute of Medicine’s 2011 study on front-of-package labels, and should continue to work with advocates to ensure labels provide the most honest, easy-to-use, and factual information to consumers. In the meantime, consumers should “trust, but verify” all nutrition labeling on food products.