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FDA to beef up standards for “health” food labeling

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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fda smart choices food healthy labelingCurrently abundant on most grocery store shelves, seals of approval for purportedly healthful food selections may become scarcer in the coming year. Some labels claiming foods are "smart choices" or "heart healthy" are patently misleading, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has threatened to prohibit such promotional labeling when it ignores unhealthy aspects of a product.

"There are some foods that have gotten the Smart Choices check mark that are almost 50 percent sugar," Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the FDA, said in a Tuesday call with reporters, the Associated Press reported.

Cereals such as Froot Loops and condiments including regular mayonnaise have been awarded the "Smart Choice" label (a program launched earlier this year by large food conglomerates including Kraft, General Mills and Kellogg’s) despite high sugar or fat levels. Many labels also now tout a product’s high fiber, antioxidant or vitamin content despite hefty helpings of other more deleterious ingredients.

In the call, Hamburg described the "growing proliferation of forms and symbols, check marks, numerical ratings, stars, heart icons" that adorn food packages, the cornucopia of which she compared to the Tower of Babel, the AP reported. "There’s truly a cacophony of approaches," Hamburg said, which can be confusing to consumers who are trying to make quick and healthful selections for themselves and their families.

The FDA warning went to food-makers in a letter on Tuesday.

Those in the industry assert that nutrition labels of their own design (and policing) are based on recommendations from the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the AP reported. "We believe in the science behind the Smart Choices Program," Mike Hughes, chairman of the program wrote in a statement. "And we also note that the Smart Choices Program complies with all U.S. laws and regulations," The Washington Post noted.

In order to bring the various corporate labels in line with actual, overall nutritional value, the FDA is looking to establish a cohesive system of evaluation and front-of-package demarcation, perhaps an abbreviated version of the standardized Nutrition Information label, instituted in the 1990s, the Post reported. As a possible model, the U.K. has a standard, green-yellow-red label system warning consumers which food items are the most (green) and least healthy (red).

"We believe we can offer important benefits in terms of developing the science- and nutrition-based criteria for the use of dietary guidance claims," Hamburg said. New, more standardized labels may go into effect as early as next year, The New York Times reported.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/monkeybusinessimages





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  1. 1. JamesDavis 8:01 am 10/22/2009

    Mike Hughes, chairman of the "Smart Choices Program," wrote in a statement. "And we also note that the Smart Choices Program complies with all U.S. laws and regulations," That’s because during the Bush administration’s "Free Market" program, there are no laws and regulations. They actually took all the Smart Choice Foods off the market and replaced them with some of the most unhealthiest foods you can imagine. That’s why there were so many outbreaks of ecoli and other deadly bacteria flooding into the markets. The truth in advertising laws went right out the window and was replaced with, "Do as you please, it’s a free economy," laws. This took all the responsibility off the Bush administration so he could concertrate all his attention and money to his war efforts.

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  2. 2. fb36 1:39 pm 10/22/2009

    Excessive sugar content is the biggest problem in US foods.
    That maybe the main reason behind the obesity epidemic in the US.
    I saw some food commercials on TV saying "now they have less sodium (salt)" . How about less sugar??

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  3. 3. Capiche 12:20 pm 10/27/2009

    The smart choice program is run by the FDA, not the president. So blaming everything the the government neglected in the past decade on Bush is absurd.

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  4. 4. Thingz8 11:41 pm 06/15/2011

    You got some solid point right there. Well, for other people to blame things on the government seems to be a norm. It just can’t be helped that is. <a href="http://www.smartthingz.com/loseweightwithflaxseed">Lose Weight With Flax Seeds</a>

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