Sept. 7, 2022 -- Nutrition advocates and food industry groups are debating whether an additional label should be placed on the front of packaged foods to more clearly show the fat, sugar, and salt content.

Later this month, the White House is holding a conference on hunger, nutrition, and health, which is expected increase the long debate over these front-of-package labels. Nutrition experts and industry groups have been fighting over what the new labels should look like, what information should be included, and whether they should be required in the first place, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The FDA already requires most packaged foods to include a detailed nutrition label, which is typically placed on the back or side of the food item. Some packages also include a few major details on the front. But nutrition advocates want more information on the front as a visual cue to show whether a product has certain health risks, such as high sugar or saturated fat levels.

“We already have information on the side of the pack, but it’s clear that it’s not having the desired impact to advance the public health,” Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and health watchdog organization, told the newspaper.

“This is a chance to make that information more prominent, more readable and more useful,” he said.

Food industry groups have said there’s not enough real-world evidence to show that these labels would influence consumer behavior. They also argue that the FDA doesn’t have the authority to make front-of-package labels mandatory, calling it a First Amendment threat that could be viewed as forced speech.

“There really is a lack of robust evidence,” Roberta Wagner, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the Consumer Brands Association, told the newspaper.

Some of the proposed labels would “demonize” certain foods, she said.

At the same time, some sort of front-of-package plan appears that it could move forward. An FDA spokeswoman told the Journal that the agency “plans to help empower consumers by providing more informative labeling to help consumers identify foods that can contribute to healthier diets.” The FDA has been monitoring the use of front labels in other countries and is conducting its own consumer focus groups about front labels, the newspaper reported.

In several countries, including Chile, Ecuador, Iran, Israel, Mexico, and Peru, front-of-package labels are mandatory for certain foods. Sodas and candy, for instance, have labels that highlight the high sugar, fat, and salt levels. Canada has made plans to create similar labels by 2026.

Ahead of the White House summit, a group of 26 food and health experts released recommendations to encourage the FDA to develop a front-of-package label plan, the newspaper reported. But in a footnote, the experts said they were divided over whether the labels should be voluntary, mandatory, or implemented in stages, as well as whether the labels should include warnings about high sugar, fat, and salt levels.

Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other national nutrition groups filed a petition that called for the FDA to create mandatory front-of-package labels, which would require a calorie count and attractive design to help people understand the label. For instance, an octagon shaped like a stop sign could warn about high levels of sugar, fat or salt, and other labels with red, yellow, and green could signal high, medium, or low levels of nutritional contents.

Some food industry groups have launched voluntary labeling programs, the Journal reported. About 150 companies use the labels, which show information such as calories, saturated fat, and sodium, as well as “nutrients to encourage,” such as fiber and potassium. There are plans to include information about added sugars as well, although nutrition advocates say that’s not enough to warn consumers about the high levels of salt and sugar in highly processed foods.

The fight will likely continue this fall, the newspaper reported. To avoid potential court challenges, the FDA may decide to make front-of-package labels voluntary but create specific standards about how to use them on packaged foods.

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The Wall Street Journal: “Nutrition Advocates Urge Front-of-Package Labels Highlighting Fat, Sugar Levels.”

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