A new look at label language


The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 requires food packagers to provide more complete, and more easily understood, labels on foods. Alleged health benefits of a product would pass strict parameters before being included on a product.

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Food labels just aren’t user-friendly,” a consumer expert said not long ago. It;s true. Package claims like “Lite,” “Natural,” “Healthy,” “Reduced-Fat,” “High-Fiber” are more sales pitch than information. And the fine print that lists vitamins, fat, and calories doesn’t tell you all you need to know either.

Here’s the good news: Help is on the way.

The U.S. Congress has to get a lot of the credit. Many Congressmen are on special diets, and have had to real labels. They had trouble understanding food labels, too.

It heightened their appreciation of the labeling problem. So in 1990, Congress passed a law called the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which orders the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create very specific new rules on labeling. The new rules require labels that are easier to understand, give us better information, and make it easier to compare one food with another.


The FDA is setting up labeling rules for tens of thousands of food products, from candy bars and cereal to packaged pizza and frozen yogurt. The agency is also drawing up guidelines for nutrition information for many fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish and seafood. This information will be posted at the point of sale.

The new law doesn’t cover meat and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA is developing new rules for labeling meat and poultry products to correspond with those of the FDA. The new labels should be on the shelved by the middle of next year.

My Grandmother Knows


Meanwhile, FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler has already begun strict enforcement of existing rules on labeling.

In April 1991, only months after Dr. Kessler took office, U.S. marshals, acting on FDA orders, seized 24,000 cartons of Citrus Hill Fresh Choice Orange Juice. The word “fresh” on the label of a processed food product was misleading to consumers, since Citrus Hill is made from concentrate.

An industry representative later asked Dr. Kessler how the FDA defined “fresh.” “A fresh product is not a commercially processed product,” Kessler replied. “My grandmother knows that, the food industry knows that, the FDA knows that.” The FDA soon had agreements with some 20 food processors to stop labeling processed foods “fresh.”

Dr. Kessler’s attention then turned to the “no-cholesterol” boasts on high-fat foods like vegetable oil, margarine, and peanut butter. Some companies also put hearts on the label to suggest the product would promote healthy hearts.

These labels don’t tell the whole story,” the FDA chief said. The products have no cholesterol because they’re made from plants, but they’re high in fat, “and a high-fat diet is unhealthy,” he pointed out. Excess fat increases the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, as well as obesity, he added. No-cholesterol products could have other fats that could lead to high cholesterol and heart disease.

Three companies got letters from the FDA demanding they remove “no-cholesterol” claims and hearts from vegetable oil labels. A number of other companies since then have also changed their labels.

“This Is a Marketing


Another FDA target was the fat percentage claims used on many low-fat frozen desserts, cottage cheese, and similar products, to make it seem that they contain very little fat. The fat percentage claims are based on the amount of fat by weight, instead of calorie count.

A product that says it is 97 percent fat-free but has 50 percent of its calories from fat is misleading,” Dr. Kessler said. “This is a marketing gimmick.” One major food company agreed to drop fat percentage claims on its labels, and other firms were expected to follow.

We are systematically examining every food category to make sure no food company gets an unfair advantage by making misleading claims,” Dr. Kessler said. “He has our attention,” a food company official commented.

Under the new food labeling law, requirements will become even more precise. Every packaged food will have a nutrition label–only about 60 percent of all packaged foods have them now. For the first time, labels will show the calories from fat, and the product’s amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol, and fiber. Some vitamins now listed–thiamin, for instance–will be optional. It’s also proposed that the amounts of fat and fiber will be shown both in amounts per serving and the amount recommended as part of the daily diet.


Lists Simplified

An ingredients list will also appear on all foods, and must include an explanation that ingredients are listed by weight, in descending order, the heaviest first. The list will have more information than it does now. “Juice drinks,” for instance, must show what percentage of fruit or vegetable juices they contain. Also proposed: listing sulfites and other ingredients that can cause allergic reactions in some sensitive people, and grouping all sugars together, including honey fructose, and others, so people know how much sugar they’re actually getting.

Phrases like “cholesterol-free,” “low-fat,” and “high in fiber,” may be used only according to very strict rules. A product can only be called “cholesterol-free,” for instance, if it is also very low in other fats. Health claims, such as “Calcium helps build strong bones,” also will be strictly regulated.

Serving sizes must be realistic, and must be shown in household measures, such as a cup or a tablespoon. Some products now list a smaller serving size–one ounce of pizza, for instance–to make the product look as if it has less fat or fewer calories. The FDA is working out appropriate serving sizes for 159 categories of food, so it will be easier to compare different breads, cereals, or pizzas.

Finally, the labels prescribed by the new FDA rules will be used nationwide. Up to now, many states have passed their own separate food labeling laws for easons that range from helping the dairy industry in Wisconsin to worries about toxic substances in food in California.

People in the food industry are generally pleased with the new law. Under the new program, food manufacturers will spend millions of dollars, not only for new labels, but for analyzing foods to measure fiber, saturated fat, and cholesterol. On the other hand, they won’t need separate labels for different states anymore. Even more important, manufacturers and processors have a level playing field, where nobody gets a competitive edge from exaggerated claims.

The rest of us have reasons to feel good about the new labels, too. The FDA’s Dr. Kessler believes “the label is the most important form of nutrition education,” giving all of us the help we need “to put together a healthful diet.

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