Label Wars

There’s a lot of talk about labels going around. “Cage-free,” “antibiotic-free,” “non-GMO,” and the list goes on. It seems the more we demand to know what’s in our food, the less we understand. What’s a consumer to do?

A recent report focused on the impact some labels could have on food products and suggested the end result could be that consumers choose foods that have less overall nutritional value. A new measure unanimously approved by the New York City Board of Health will soon require warning labels on menu items that contain high amounts of sodium, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed an “added sugars” declaration along with a daily reference value (DRV) on Nutrition Facts Labels.

A blog post at HuffPost Healthy Living examined New York City’s sodium warning regulation, scheduled to take effect December 1. The measure will require large chain restaurants, movie theaters and ballparks to post warnings on food items that contain more than 2,300 mg of sodium — the current upper level intake recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. According to the blog post’s authors, however, the current sodium recommendation may be misguided based on growing scientific evidence.

This evidence suggests that daily consumption of dietary sodium between three and six grams can be optimal for heart health. Some studies have shown that people who consume less than around three grams of sodium daily experience a greater risk of heart attacks, stroke and early death, while people who consume more than around five grams of sodium daily do not experience a greater risk.

The authors of the blog post believe that sodium labeling is part of a growing trend of singling out individual ingredients that can lead to product reformulations that may not necessarily be healthier. Instead, the focus should be on overall nutritional quality of foods.

The FDA’s proposal that would require an “added sugars” declaration and daily reference value on Nutrition Facts Labels is coming under scrutiny by The Sugar Association. In a statement to the FDA, The Sugar Association said “FDA has not provided the scientific evidence to uphold its own statutory requirement that ‘added sugars’ labeling and a DRV for ‘added sugars’ is ‘necessary to assist consumers in maintaining healthy dietary practices.'” An article at USAgNet says that the “FDA’s own consumer research shows that should the Agency move forward with its “added sugars” labeling proposal it will mislead and confuse consumers.”

CCFI’s consumer trust research shows that while consumer acceptance of scientific evidence can be challenging, making it relevant and meaningful to consumers helps bring balance to conversations on complex and controversial food issues and ultimately helps consumers make more informed decisions about food. With conflicting scientific views on food issues, the challenge becomes even greater.

A way that food system stakeholders can help consumers feel good about their food choices is through greater transparency. CCFI’s 2015 consumer trust research will focus on how transparency relates to building trust around policies, practices, performance, verification and illustration. The results can be used by food system stakeholders to develop transparency strategies that will increase trust in their products, their processes and their brands. The survey findings will be summarized at the 2015 Food Integrity Summit in November.