The US Food Industry Faces Pressure to Reveal the Truth About Their Products

Nick Terran
By Nick Terran

Step into a grocery store in France, and you’ll see a green, yellow, or red score on the front of most packaged foods: a green “A” for the healthiest, a red “E” for the least nutritious.

France has kept their front of packaging labels simple using colors and a letter grade to breakdown nutritional value.

In Chile, that label turns into a stop sign, warning consumers about high levels of sugar, salt, saturated fats, or calories. Over 40 countries now require front-of-package nutritional labels as diet-related diseases surge worldwide.

Chile's front of packaging nutrition labels are easy to understand and feature the stop sign shape.

And then there’s Mexico. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that tracks the top 35 economies, Mexico has the second-highest rate of obesity, behind the United States.

Hoping to make a dent, Mexico adopted the stop sign shape for their labels but took it a step farther with warnings for foods that contain sweeteners along with “not recommended for children”.

Mexico's front of packaging nutrition labels use the stop-sign shape and include warnings for sweeteners and caffeine.

But in the US, there are no such requirements. That might soon change.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing front-of-package labels that could be mandated by 2027. Despite strong opposition from food companies, the FDA is evaluating different label designs to find the best combination. It must easily inform consumers while also complying with US corporate free speech laws.

Better Nutritional Labels

As research reveals more health impacts from consuming ultra-processed foods (UPFs), the urgency for clear nutritional labels grows. The FDA’s current focus is on “nutrients of concern” like sugar and sodium, but many advocates argue that UPFs should also be highlighted.

UPFs, like sugary cereals, microwave dinners, and packaged snacks, are heavily processed with ingredients such as sugars, salts, and hydrogenated fats. These make up 73% of the US food supply and provide over 60% of daily calories for the average US adult. Studies link UPFs to various health issues, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, and depression.

The US packaging makes Kellogg's dark chocolate bars look healthy.
But the French packaging and the Nutri-score of a D instantly show that these bars are not healthy for you.

Historically, the food industry’s main challenge was ensuring enough nutritious and safely preserved food. The industrialization of the food supply solved that problem for most of the world,” said Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University.

The Push for Front-of-Package Labels

In the 1970s, food companies began voluntarily printing nutrition facts on packages. The FDA made it mandatory in 1993, yet diet-related diseases continued to rise. Today, more than 1 million Americans die annually from such diseases. In 2006, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA for front-of-package labels, arguing that back-of-package labels were unclear and easy to ignore.

Although the FDA never responded formally, it did commission the Institute of Medicine to study the issue. In 2010 and 2012, the Institute recommended front-of-package labels. 

In response, two food industry trade groups created a voluntary label called Facts Up Front, which includes grams and daily values for nutrients like sugar and salt, but remains difficult to interpret.

Meanwhile, Latin American countries developed more straightforward labels. 

The Facts Up Front label isn't required by law and there's no government-backed agency to oversee the accuracy of the data provided by the manufacturer.

In 2016, Chile introduced a black, stop sign-shaped label for foods high in sugar, salt, saturated fat, or calories. Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia soon followed with similar labels.

“People really do struggle to interpret percent daily value,” says Marissa G. Hall, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Front-of-package labels are a huge opportunity to make that information more accessible.”

Kellogg's Frosted Flakes are identical from three countries (left to right): Mexico, France, United States. Which box would you most likely purchase if you're trying to be healthier? Corn (breaks down as sugar) and sugar are the first and second ingredients.

Industry Resistance and Regulatory Challenges

In 2022, CSPI filed a new petition with the FDA for mandatory front-of-package labels. The FDA is now studying different labels, including “high in” warnings and traffic light-like labels popular in Europe. However, US commercial speech protections make it unlikely that the FDA will mandate stop sign labels or UPF designations.

Industry groups argue that interpretive labels could cause unnecessary fear. “Labels should not promote the avoidance of food ingredients or additives that have been affirmed safe by federal regulatory bodies,” stated the Consumer Brands Association and the Food Industry Association.

Labeling advocates disagree. “The food industry is drawing heavily on the same playbook that the tobacco industry used to oppose regulation,” said Lindsey Smith Taillie, a professor of nutrition at UNC Chapel Hill. “It’s their way of getting a labeling system without meaningful consequences.”

The FDA’s initial labeling rule was delayed to June 2024. If approved, it will go to the White House for review. Elections could significantly influence the outcome; a Trump administration is expected to freeze labeling efforts, while a Biden administration would likely proceed.

The FDA has proposed three different nutritional label concepts.

The Influence of Big Food

The food industry, borrowing tactics from Big Tobacco, continues to delay and deny. “A lot of the CEOs and executives now in food were involved in the tobacco industry,” said Eric Crosbie, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. Companies like Kraft Foods and Nabisco were once owned by tobacco giants.

The US has struggled to mandate graphic warnings on cigarette packages since 2009. “Thirteen years of delay because of the first amendment,” said Crosbie, highlighting the parallels with food labeling.

Would Better Food Labels Make a Difference for Most Americans?

The question remains: would more honest and transparent food labels truly influence the eating habits of most Americans? While the intention behind front-of-package labels is to empower consumers with better information, the real-world impact is complex.

The Reality of Nutritional Information and Consumer Behavior

Historical data provides a mixed picture. Since 1993, when the FDA mandated nutrition facts on the back of food packages, rates of diet-related diseases, including obesity, have continued to rise. Moreover, the introduction of calorie counts on restaurant menus and fast food places in recent years hasn’t led to a significant decrease in obesity rates. What does this data mean? Well, some consumers may use nutritional information to make healthier choices, but most don’t.

Factors Influencing Food Choices

Several factors influence whether Americans change their eating habits based on nutritional information:

    1. Awareness and Understanding: Many consumers may not fully understand the nutritional information provided. Terms like “percent daily value” can be confusing without proper education.
    2. Behavioral Habits: Eating habits are deeply ingrained and influenced by cultural, social, and economic factors. Convenience, taste preferences, and marketing often outweigh nutritional considerations.
    3. Accessibility and Affordability: Healthier food options aren’t always accessible or affordable for all Americans. Socioeconomic disparities play a significant role in dietary choices, with low-income households often resorting to cheaper, ultra-processed foods.
Snack for sale on display in a little shop in Chile. Notice the stop-sign front of packaging labels.

Potential Impact of Better Labels

Despite these challenges, better and more honest labels could still make a difference:

    • Informed Choices: Clear, easy-to-understand labels can help those who are motivated to make healthier choices. Studies from countries with front-of-package labels show a shift towards healthier purchasing behaviors among certain demographics.
    • Public Awareness: Consistent exposure to clear nutritional information can raise public awareness about the health impacts of their food choices over time.
    • Policy and Regulation: Honest labels could also influence broader food industry practices, encouraging companies to reformulate products to be healthier to avoid negative labeling.

While better labels alone may not solve the obesity epidemic, they are a crucial step towards greater transparency and consumer empowerment. Combined with educational campaigns, improved access to healthy foods, and broader policy changes, honest food labels could contribute to a gradual shift in American dietary habits. However, addressing the root causes of poor nutrition requires a multifaceted approach beyond labeling alone.

Of course, here at Dakoa we know for certain that when a person chooses and commits to eating healthier, it can be done. Our own Olivia Salvatore has proven exactly that by losing (and keeping off) 250 pounds without a prescription or a weight-loss procedure.

Legislative Efforts and Future Directions

Food-labeling advocates recently introduced two bills: the Truth in Labeling Act and the Food Labeling Modernization Act. If passed, these could bypass the FDA timeline, but success is unlikely with a Republican-controlled House.

Even with mandatory labels, the issue of UPFs remains. Researchers at UNC are testing UPF labels, hoping to guide future efforts. However, the FDA’s focus on product rather than process complicates matters. A recommendation from the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services in the 2025 Dietary Guidelines could also influence policy.

Addressing UPFs requires examining the industrialization, poverty, unpaid domestic labor, and agriculture policies that made them prevalent. While regulatory actions can help, a broader approach is needed to reduce reliance on ultra-processed foods and improve public health.

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