FDA plans to approve front labels with nutritional information on food packages

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to propose a change in packaged foods sold in the United States, so that the packages display key nutritional information on the front, in addition to the label already on the back part.

The concept, designed to quickly inform busy consumers about the health consequences of the foods and drinks they are considering purchasing, is not new: dozens of countries already have nutrition labels on the front of packages, with different designs.

In Chile, for example, a stop symbol on the front of a product indicates whether it is high in sugar, saturated fat, sodium or calories. Mexico has the Food and Beverage Front Labeling System (SEFAB) that “must warn the final consumer clearly and truthfully about the content of critical nutrients and ingredients that represent a risk to health when consumed in excess.”

In Israel, these foods and drinks carry a red warning label. And in Singapore, drinks display a letter grade based on how nutritious they are.

For nearly two decades, consumer advocates have called on the FDA to require front-of-package labels, saying they help people make healthier choices and push food manufacturers to reformulate their recipes. so that their products carry fewer warnings.

The FDA did not comment on the matter until it announced its intention to study the possibility of including labels on the front of containers as part of a national health strategy presented during a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health held in 2022. Since then, it has reviewed information on front-of-pack labeling and held focus groups to test label design.

But the idea faces opposition from trade associations representing U.S. food and beverage manufacturers, which more than a decade ago voluntarily created their own system to highlight certain nutrients on the front of packages. And some label designs being studied by the FDA could be challenged on First Amendment grounds.

“The United States interprets free speech much more broadly and inclusively of corporate speech than any other country in the world,” explains Jennifer Pomeranz, an associate professor at New York University's School of Global Public Health, who has researched the obstacles that the First Amendment imposes to impose front labeling of foods.

According to their research, purely factual designs—indicating the number of grams of added sugars, for example—are more likely to be considered constitutional than interpretive designs with shapes or colors that characterize a product as unhealthy.

“The issue starts to get more complicated when you enter the realm of the subjective,” says Pomeranz.

Among the various labeling options tested by the FDA, some used traffic light colors to indicate whether the amount of saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars was high (red), medium (yellow), or low (green); Others indicated whether a product was “rich in” those nutrients, sometimes adding the percentage of the recommended daily value that a serving contains.

An FDA spokesperson refused to reveal to NBC News what design will be used and beyond saying that “it is planned for this summer” he did not say when exactly the agency will release its proposal, even though it had previously set as deadline this month.

The Consumer Brands Association and the food industry association FMI, which created a voluntary labeling system for the food and beverage industry called Facts up Front which launched in 2011, have come out against mandatory interpretive designs like the red light-green light system.

These labels, they wrote in a public comment to the FDA in 2022, “will raise unnecessary fear in consumers based on a single limiting nutrient without providing meaningful information about how that food might fit into overall healthy eating patterns.”

They also said that their voluntary system responds to the needs of consumers. Facts up Front Use up to four icons on the front of packages highlighting calories, saturated fat, sodium and added sugars for each serving. Manufacturers may also include information on up to two “target nutrients” such as potassium or fiber.

The Consumer Brands Association says hundreds of thousands of products already carry Facts up Front: At least 207,000 foods and drinks had them by 2021, according to the group's most recent data available.

“It gives consumers a quick, consistent and holistic view of the nutritional composition of what they buy and helps them make informed decisions,” says Sarah Gallo, vice president of product policy for the association.

Those who defend the mandatory labeling on the front of the containers do not agree, and argue that the campaign Facts up Front Not used enough: The federally mandated nutrition label on the back or side appears on billions of products.

“Front labeling is only trustworthy to consumers if it appears across the entire food supply, not just those from a handful of manufacturers that opt ​​for a voluntary program,” says Eva Greenthal, a policy expert at the Center for Science in the Public. Interest, a food and health advocacy group that first petitioned the FDA to implement front-of-label labeling in 2006.

According to Greenthal, there is also not enough context provided to be useful.

“Facts up Front doesn't offer additional tools to help consumers interpret that information,” he adds, “we need something like the word 'high on.'”

Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, the U.S. trade association for the sugar industry, said her group supports transparency but questions whether mandatory front-of-pack labeling will really improve Americans' diets.

“There just doesn't seem to be enough evidence to prove that it will make a difference,” he says.

But Greenthal and other activists say there is global data to support that premise. In Chile, which in 2016 became the first country to implement such labels, studies show that people have made healthier purchases as consumers and are choosing healthier product formulations.