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FDA to beef up standards for "health" food labeling

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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

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

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