Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“Front of Package Food Labels – Public Health or Propaganda”

The current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA, February 24, 2010, pages 771-772] has an interesting editorial of the title here by Drs Nestle and Ludwig about food labeling. “At no point in US history have food products displayed so may symbols and statements proclaiming nutrition and health benefits” is the opening sentence. In brief, the authors suggest that processed food companies have been aggressive in putting information on the front of their packages that suggest or actually tout a health claim. They point out that in 1984, Kellogg got the National Cancer Institute to agree to a health claim for All Bran cereal. The market share of All Bran rose 47%. Clearly, a health claim sells food products.

But what about claims that a food package is “low salt” or “low cholesterol” or “low fat?” Usually this represents a relative statement. If a soup is low salt but if one eats multiple servings per meal, then low salt becomes a lot of salt. If low sugar means just a small bite of the chocolate bar, that is true but who eats just a small bite?

The article noted that the San Francisco city attorney was able to force Kellogg to stop using the statement that sweetened breakfast cereals “help support your child’s immunity.” There was no evidence to support this claim and furthermore, sugared foods raise many other health issues.

Manufacturers naturally want to use health claims; it helps sell the product. But these claims can confuse the shopper and may well suggest to the buyer that the government has somehow endorsed the statement when in fact it has not. Indeed, few claims can be verified because no unbiased evaluation has been done to accept or refute them. Stating that a food is fortified with a vitamin does not mean that it is a healthy food; just that it has had the vitamin added. The important question is whether the food, say a cereal, is made of whole grains and has little or not sugars, salt or fat added.

The authors conclude by recommending that the FDA strictly regulate front-of-package labeling based on sound studies. Seems like a very good idea to me.

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Praise for Dr Schimpff

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