This is a correction to show that the FDA is considering only voluntary rules for nutrition labels on the front of packages.
The Food and Drug Administration is considering ways to improve the nutritional information that's printed on the front of packages.
This week the FDA asked for comments and information from the public about what is effective with front-of-package labeling and shelf tags on food products now in stores.
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The FDA wants to develop voluntary guidelines for front-of-pack nutrition labels that consumers will notice and that are driven by sound nutrition criteria, consumer research and eye-catching design, said FDA spokesperson Siobhan DeLancey. The labels will enhance nutritional awareness but will not replace the nutritional facts panel already on products.
There is not a standardized system for front labeling at this time, said Kim Stitzel, the director of nutrition and obesity at the American Heart Association. The AHA supports an FDA-regulated unified system to help clear up confusion about the meaning of the various icons and labels now used by food companies.
Approximately 25 different front-of-package labeling techniques exist today, according to Stitzel, ranging from ratings and heart stamps (including the AHA's heart-check stamp) to whole-grain stamps and traffic-light symbols. Sometimes the information can be deceiving, she said.
"When people see 'all-natural' or 'organic' on the front of a box, they think it is wholesome, but it could be loaded with sugar and fat," said Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of the new book "Read It Before You Eat It." She emphasized that consumers should still read the detailed nutrition information on the back of the package before making a decision.
"Consumers shouldn't have to be dietitians, mathematicians or librarians to go food shopping," Taub-Dix said. "People feel overwhelmed. (FDA officials) need to make the label more hands-on, more tangible, something that people can understand."
Jim McCarthy, the president of the Snack Food Association, said that the trade group opposes mandatory labeling requirements.
"The information is already there. We encourage the consumer to read up on the individual food product on the nutrition-facts panel," McCarthy said. "It is very costly for food companies to change their packaging, especially smaller companies."
McCarthy also criticized the shelf-tag requirements under consideration.
"We are concerned there will be a good-food/bad-food approach," McCarthy said. "There is no such thing as good or bad food, just bad diets."
An American Heart Association analysis showed that sales of products carrying its heart check rose from 1% to 7%. Stitzel said that labeling requirements could help improve the overall nutritional quality of food as well.
"Food companies want to carry whatever the healthful mark is," Stitzel said. "We have seen that food companies do reformulate based on trying to achieve the status."
DeLancey said obesity rates and the number of related illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are rapidly rising.
The FDA is accepting comments until the end of July and plans to have a draft of the regulation ready by the end of the year.