By Phil Lempert, The Supermarket Guru
The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health includes a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiative to conduct research and propose a standard front-of-package (FOP) labeling system to help shoppers identify foods that can help them, according to the strategy document, “build a healthy eating pattern”. This new FOP label will be in addition to the Nutrition Facts label that currently is required on food packages.
The debate for over a decade has focused on why we need FOP labels when all a shopper must do is read the Nutrition Facts label. On June 14th, the FDA issued its procedural notice on its plans to conduct (yet another) study: Quantitative Research on Front of Package Labeling on Packaged Foods. Comments on the notice are due by July 17, 2023 and I urge every retail dietitian to add their insights which can be found HERE; it’s our opportunity to add the in-store retail voice that typically is not included in these discussions.
This new label initiative comes at a critical time. Our shoppers are being deluged with advertisements and social media posts touting yet another weight loss band aid; this time in the form of daily injections that have shown significant and rapid weight loss. Surely, a much easier quick fix than having to change one’s eating behaviors, which creates another challenge for retail dietitians to help their shoppers down the path of the FDA’s mission of “building a healthy eating pattern”.
The solution to FOP labels may actually be easier than the proposed FDA process. In the March survey-based report from Purdue University’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability, they found that American consumers tend to trust food labels – especially the ingredient list, expiration date and Nutrition Facts label. What shoppers did not trust were those low-calorie, naturalness and health claim labels. Most likely the ones that brands have been promoting the most! Of concern should be the finding that shoppers trust the expiration date labeling, which is not regulated by the FDA or have clear standards.
In 2016, Chile implemented FOP ‘warning’ labels, restricted marketing and banned school sales for food and beverages that are high in calories, sodium, sugar, or saturated fat. Very similar to the HFFS initiative now underway in the UK. The results in Chile are encouraging. Overall calories purchased (-1.7%), overall sugar (-5.4%), overall sodium (-4.6%) and overall saturated fat (-3.6%) all declined. The graphic design of their FOP warning labels was designed to be somewhat scary and evident – black octagons with the words high-in sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and/or calories, whichever applied to that product. Another study, Equilibrium effects of food labeling policies, analyzed purchase data from Walmart-Chile found an overall decrease in sugar and calorie purchase of 7-9% among Walmart customers over 2 years after the Chilean policy was implemented.
If the FDA’s objective is to change eating behaviors, the time has come to create a powerful and comprehensive FOP plan that will have visual impact on shelf, and not just a regurgitation of the information on the Nutritional Facts panel.