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Nutrition experts call for ban on front-of-pack label claims

By Caroline Scott-Thomas, 24-Feb-2010

Related topics: Food safety and labeling, Regulation

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should consider an outright ban on front-of-pack labeling claims, say two nutrition experts in a Journal of the American Medical Association commentary.

The FDA launched a review on the use of front-of-pack labeling in October, suggesting the eventual use of standardized, science-based criteria on which any front-of-pack health claims would have to be based.

But nutrition experts Marion Nestle and David Ludwig wrote in a JAMA commentary that “such standards are inevitably arbitrary and subject to manipulation.”

They wrote: “Front-of-package labels may so thoroughly mislead the public that another option deserves consideration – eliminate all nutrition and health claims from the front of processed food packages while strengthening the Nutrition Facts Panel.”

In particular, they advocate a revision of portion size information on the Nutrition Facts panel, in order to better reflect actual consumption of a product, and better nutritional education encouraging people to eat whole and minimally processed foods. One of their concerns is based on FDA research suggesting that people are more likely to ignore the Nutrition Facts panel when front-of-pack labeling is present.

Nestle and Ludwig call current labeling programs misleading for several reasons including the ability to improve nutritional profiles to meet specific front-of-pack labeling criteria “with little meaningful improvement in nutritional quality”, such as reducing fat content in snack foods with the use of starch. They also mention the difficulty of verifying companies’ health claims, in comparison to the rigorous testing required of new drugs; and wrote that front-of-pack claims are selective in their focus on single nutrients rather than the entire nutritional profile of a food product.

In conclusion, Nestle and Ludwig tackle the question of whether the First Amendment should guarantee companies’ rights to make health claims.

“Claims that sugar-sweetened products make children smarter or boost their immunity are reason enough for the FDA to take this issue back to court and for Congress to consider legislative remedies,” they wrote.

The FDA’s move to review front-of-pack labeling coincided with public furor over the use of the Smart Choices labeling program, which was widely criticized after it gave its green check mark to sugary cereals.

The full article can be accessed online here .