2013 Forum: Putting the label on the table

By Ashley Carter

Food Policy

“All Natural.” “Reduces risk of heart disease.” “Promotes healthy cell growth.” “Good source of potassium.” “Cheat death.”

You’ve probably seen similar claims printed on food packages.  And if you are a typical consumer, you’ve probably been confused and misled by what these labels mean, whether you know it or not.

In early March, I had the opportunity to attend the 2013 Forum on Food Labeling: Putting the Label on the Table, hosted by the Harvard Food Law Society.  I was excited about this forum, as we have been discussing the history behind and implications of food labeling in Dr. Tillotson’s Policy of Health Claims class at the Friedman School.

There are three main types of claims on foods, all of which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Nutrient content claims identify the level of a certain nutrient in a food, such as “low fat” or “contains 100 calories.”  Structure/function claims describe how nutrients affect normal structure or function in the human body, such as “calcium builds strong bones.” Health claims characterize the relationship between a nutrient or substance and a disease or health-related condition, such as “soluble fiber may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Food companies constantly push the limits of what claims can be made on food packages in an effort to market their products.

A panel on Friday afternoon, called “From Nutrition Facts to Front-of-Pack: What is the Ideal Food Label,” addressed front-of-pack (FOP) labeling. Claims made on the front of packaging are the most common, most visible, and likely most controversial type of labeling. The panel comprised three experts in the food labeling arena, and each was given the chance to express her view on the ideal front-of-pack labeling system.

Rebecca Goldberg, an attorney for the FDA Office of Chief Counsel expressed that “the legal landscape that companies have to navigate in order to label on packages is very complex.” Goldberg emphasized that issues related to First Amendment freedom of speech complicate matters. In thinking about “the Perfect Food Label,” the push to remove confusing labels from foods to make labels simpler for consumers could be considered “a serious infringement on freedom of speech.”

Jennifer Pomeranz, director of Legal Initiatives for the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, spoke second. Her primary concern was added sugars in products. Lots of products contain artificial sweeteners, and Pomeranz believes the FDA should require a disclosure on the front of packages if a product contains them. Studies show that most parents do not want added sugars or artificial sweeteners in the foods they buy. However, these ingredients are often listed in the ingredient list under names we don’t recognize, so consumers are not aware of exactly what they are purchasing.

However, Pomeranz believes that “we should not remove total sugar from the label because then it can look to consumers like there is less sugar in the product,” even though products containing natural sugar often have more total sugar than comparable products with added sugar. According to Pomeranz, both added and total sugars are key pieces to the obesity epidemic.  For this reason, she believes that “certain levels of added sugar (and trans fat) should disqualify products from being able to make health claims and nutrient-content claims.” For these products, the positive claims can overshadow the negative perception of added sugars.

The final member of the panel was Helen Falco, director of Nutrition & Health Policy for The Coca-Cola Company. Her philosophies, which aligns with those of The Coca-Cola Company, are that all foods can fit in a healthy lifestyle, that physical activity is important, and that all calories count, no matter where they are coming from. Falco supports fact-based nutrition labeling, such as “contains 120 calories,” and objects to interpretive systems that identify “superior quality” because she views them as judgmental and confusing. “Don’t provide too much information or too complex information, or the consumer will be overwhelmed.” In her opinion, calorie information should be the priority, and additional information should be provided on websites and other forums.

Goldberg and Pomeranz disagree. Both feel that calorie awareness is important for consumers, but that it should not be the primary focus for labeling. Pomeranz believes that focusing primarily on calories would be a huge step back, as “calories are not a good indicator of health and the calorie discussion is old science.” Her comment that “almonds have more calories than potato chips, but we would never recommend someone eat potato chips instead of almonds” drew applause from the audience.

Falco also emphasized that education is a key element to ensure that nutrition labeling is understood and used appropriately, which both other members of the panel agreed with. “We need to teach people about nutrition labels so they can use the tool; this allows people to make the choice themselves, and to make the right choice for him- or herself.”

As expected, Falco’s position and motivations were questioned during the panel because of her position within Coca-Cola.  In response, Falco cited the extensive nutrition education available on the Coca-Cola website, as well as the 200 or more education programs that they sponsor.

Urvashi Rangan Ph.D, director of Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports, presented next as the keynote speaker. Consumer Reports surveys and educates consumers about meaningful labels and the practices underlying labeling, files labeling complaints with government agencies, and testifies to Congress about better labeling practices.

Rangan’s talk was entitled “Modern Labels: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and Why We Need Them,” and she addressed a variety of issues inherent in current food labeling practices. Dr. Rangan first discussed the premise behind why consumers need credible labels to begin with. Labels create a market demand for sustainable practices and they give consumers the opportunity to make value-added purchasing decisions at the point of purchase. They also provide consumers with reassurance that, if they pay more, the products they buy will meet their health, safety and environmental expectations.

Rangan emphasized that “bad labels are usually not a mistake – they are used to purposefully undermine truthful and non-deceptive business practices.” She questions why the myriad claims that do not actually mean anything, such as “natural” and “hypoallergenic,” are allowed. “They don’t have distinct definitions… and anyone can put them on labels.” These are called “general claims” and, according to Rangan, they simply add confusion to the labeling landscape.

Rangan does not believe that government has set appropriate minimum requirements for using labels that are truthful, transparent and trustworthy. For example, a law pertaining to “substantial transformation” requires companies to label a product when it has been substantially transformed, such as smoked or homogenized. Given that law, Rangan questions why GMO labeling is not required for GMO seeds, which are substantially transformed, particularly when Consumer Reports surveys indicate that 90% of the public wants GMO labeling.

Rangan then discussed how little it takes to become a label: “natural” does not have any particular definition, yet Consumer Reports found that many people think that products labeled with the word “natural” are superior. “Free range,” “cage free,” fresh” and other meat marketing claims are misleading to consumers because they do not necessarily mean what they imply. “Pure” does not have to mean it’s purely anything, “fragrance free” does not mean it has no fragrance, “formaldehyde free” can contain trace amounts of formaldehyde, and “trans fat free” can contain up to 0.5 g of trans fat.

As for organic, Rangen believes that Consumer Reports and the community at large needs to show their support for organic labeling if we are concerned with sustainability. “The organic label is the key label that leads the sustainability movement,” says Rangen, and if it fails, it will be hard to label products related to sustainability with any sort of credibility.

If all of this seems disheartening, have faith. Consumer Reports is bringing these issues into the spotlight. The ultimate goal of the publication is to find out what consumers want and what value labels can bring – and to bring these issues to the government’s attention. One of Rangan’s primary concerns is the fractured oversight of labeling. According to Rangan, “government agencies do not communicate enough, they do not call each other out, and there are cracks between the agencies that are supposed to be regulating these products that companies can slip through.” Rather than attacking companies, Consumer Reports aims to address the government agencies and their regulatory methods in an attempt to make the whole system function more effectively. Consumer Reports’ position is that one government agency should deal with labeling to maximize consistency and effectiveness of labeling for consumers.

“We need a more cooperative and collaborative approach in general,” said Rangan. I think that those of us involved in trying to figure out the most effective way to communicate health and nutrition information to consumers would agree with Rangan that collaboration and communication must guide the future of labeling.

Author’s note: On Saturday, Jesse LaFlamme from Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs presented on “The Voluntary Food Labeling Process From Conception to Approval,” Carter Dillard, director of Litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund presented on “Litigation and Other Tools for Tackling Misleading Marketing Claim: Preventing Humanewashing,” and a panel of experts discussed “Organic, All-Natural, Heart Healthy: How toRegulate Marketing Claims on Food Packages to Better Serve and Protect Consumers.” I was sadly unable to attend these presentations.

Ashley Carter is a second year master’s student in Nutrition Communication at the Friedman School. She is an avid skier and outdoor enthusiast. She is very interested in food labeling as it pertains to consumer understanding and misunderstanding of health information.

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