Time to stop the nascarization of products with a standard FOP?

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October 1, 2012 by nutritionpolicy2012

At The Obesity Society (TOS) Conference  a little over a week ago, I attended a session entitled “Front of Package (FOP) Labeling: Helpful or Confusing”. Here was the line-up:

  • Are There Good and Bad Foods? Should the Government Recommend Selected Foods? David Ludwig, MD, PhD (Harvard & Boston Children’s Hospital)
  • The International Choices Labeling System Jaap Seidell, PhD (Free Univ., Amsterdam, Chair of the International Choices Scientific Committee)
  • The IOM Labeling System vs. the GMA Approach Ellen Wartella, PhD (Northwestern Univ., representing IOM panel on FOP recommendations)

Dr. Ludwig discussed the following flaws of FOP labeling, which have made them ineffective to date:

1) health claims based on individual dietary factors are misleading

2) FOP labels restricted to nutrient content can be deceptive

3) “healthier”/ “better-for-you” processed foods are not necessarily healthier

4) health aura is just that, an aura

While I agreed with a lot of what Dr. Ludwig had to say, I struggled with the idea that processing is necessarily bad or sub-optimal. In fact, there are many levels of processing and it is difficult to determine how much processing is too much. The concept of processing is also often tied in with other issues too, like perishability, use of additives, convenience, and cost. One of our doctoral students is actually working to figure out how best to categorize products based on these various domains to try to tease these out.

Personally, I was quite convinced by the Choices system, and I highly recommend that folks learn about it. It provides an incremental approach, which I think is the most realistic for retailers, manufacturers and consumers alike. Over time, manufacturers can gradually evolve their products, and retailers can evolve their offerings to be healthier without harming their bottom line as consumers would have time to adapt their tastes/ preference (in many cases they might not even be aware of the changes). The other important piece of the Choices system is that because it involves also working with retailers (not just manufacturers) the Choices labels are not actually just front-of-package, they were front-of-products. This includes fresh fruits & vegetables, meats, deli, etc. and therefore “levels the playing field” across all foods. Lastly, because this scheme is an international effort, I believe it may be the best approach given the globalization of our food supplies, and how it could possibly help standardize efforts globally. Afterall, the obesity and nutrition problems that the US face is not unique.

Also, on a related note, new paper just came out in Preventing Chronic Disease on testing various Front-of-package (FOP) labeling schemes found that the Choices and the multiple traffic light plus daily caloric requirement icons appeared to hold the most promise for encouraging people to make better choices.

From a policy perspective, Dr. Wartella updated attendees about where things are with the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) FOP recommendations. The IOM recommendations have been with the FDA for 8 months now, but given that it is an election year, it is not surprising that the FDA has delayed issuing FOP labeling guidelines. The IOM recommended labels listing only calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and added sugars (nutrients to limit). Although the IOM did not mention traffic-light labels, it did recommend check marks or stars, which come close. The food industry and GMA much prefers its own Facts Up Front, which emphasizes “good-for-you” nutrients, and is already using this system. Will the FDA try to turn the institute recommendations into regulations? That will partly depend on who wins Nov 6th. Stay tuned!!

For those of you who are members of TOS, but were unable to attend the conference, you should be able to download the 2012 (or other years’) sessions from their website.

Meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts about all of this…. as RDs/ RDs in training, what information is the most useful and effective for typical consumers??

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