At a Bravo supermarket on a recent weekday evening in Brooklyn, N.Y, shopper Jamilya Shroud-Garrett looks for a breakfast cereal for her son. She points to a box of Cheerios, which has a banner-style label bearing the message, "Can help lower cholesterol," and dismisses it as ridiculous. "It's common sense. If you have high cholesterol, it's not going to help to eat two bowls of cereal," she says.
Shroud-Garrett is an unusually conscious brand of consumer, not easily swayed by so-called "front-of-pack" labeling the carefully worded, attention-getting health and nutrition claims (Made with whole grains! All natural!), which appear on so many processed-food packages and which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now seeking to rein in. While Shroud-Garrett scanned the more detailed dietary information contained in the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the box, most other shoppers who paused for an interview in the cereal aisle that evening said their choices were guided either by past purchases or front-of-the-box labels.
Nutritionists and obesity researchers say such blind food-buying habits have gotten dicier in recent years, with the explosion of increasingly aggressive front-of-package labels and logos that are designed to mislead, confuse and distract consumers. "People tend to assume, [mistakenly], that what's stated on the front of the pack has the explicit or at least the tacit approval of the government," says Dr. David Ludwig, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Children's Hospital Boston, yet many products' labeling efforts actually flout government regulations.
As part of its effort to improve labeling practices, on Friday the FDA began asking for public comment on "ways to enhance the usefulness to consumers of...information on the principal display panel of food products ('front-of-pack' labeling) or on shelf tags in retail stores." In particular, the agency wants to know how consumers read and use such nutritional information, and whether there's a way to standardize its presentation to help people make better choices. Some observers say the FDA is readying what will be the most extensive food-labeling reform since 1990.
Tricks of the Trade
Reform is overdue. Under current law the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act all packaged foods must display nutrients and ingredients in a consistent format. That law spawned the now familiar Nutrition Facts label, which is printed on virtually every processed food product in the Western world. The legislation also authorized the FDA to officially define marketing terms such as "light" and "low fat," created guidelines for nutrient claims and set up a regulatory framework for approving any health claims used on the front of packaging.
But since then, food makers have devised all sorts of creative ways to circumvent labeling regulations and to confuse and seduce consumers. One common strategy: to misuse what is known as the nutrient content claim. A package of Dreyer's Dibs bite-size ice cream snacks, for instance, declares that it contains "0 g Trans Fat," but fails to mention that the product also has 28 grams of total fat and 20 grams of saturated fat per serving (information that is available on the Nutrition Facts panel on the back of the package). Regarding fat-content information, federal law has an all-or-nothing stipulation: if food manufacturers choose to tout trans fat information on the front of the package, they must disclose the amount of saturated and total fats as well.
Another standard bit of hucksterism is to add a micronutrient or two to a food, then label the product "Rich source of antioxidants" or "Contains added vitamins and minerals." Historically, foods were fortified to compensate for nutrients lost during processing and to curb malnutrition within the population. Today, with vitamin deficiencies in the U.S. at an all-time low, the tactic is largely a marketing gimmick. "Most of our nutritional problems are problems of excess not deficiency," says Karen Glanz, professor of epidemiology and nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, noting that fortification claims distract consumers' attention from more important information, including calorie, fiber and sodium content.