Food package labels typically include nutrition messages to provide consumer information and also for marketing distinction among product choices. Most packaged foods marketed globally have explicit messages about nutritional quality. Implicit messages also may be creatively used. Food labeling has the potential to provide useful information to consumers—instructive in nutrient content and educational for food choice.
However, researchers in the European Union have reported that the influence of nutrition labels on choice at the point of sale is small. Only slight effects of front-of-packaging label information were reported, and information had no influence on motivation to purchase more-healthful foods.
How do we see the future of nutrition labeling, dietary advice, and label claims? Will consumers believe us? Nutrition labeling is relevant only when the information provided is meaningful and useful to consumers.
Consumer interest in food package labels and nutrition information about the foods they consume is increasing. Further, much more information is sought about ingredients, production, and processing methods. The verifiable and relevant safety and health model adopted by the United States and many other countries no longer serves the role to provide the information that would appear to be meaningful to consumers.
In the United States in 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law, giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specific authority to require nutrition labeling of most foods and to require that all nutrient content claims and health claims be consistent with FDA requirements. The Act also covered ingredient declarations and percent juice labeling. These label elements were intended to provide consumers with information needed to make informed dietary choices and to plan meals and diets to meet the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Regulations prescribe what information must be on the label, what information may be on the label, and where and how that information can be put on the label. Is that information relevant to consumers, and does it help them make informed choices? Most of us probably recall the Basic Four as well as the Food Guide Pyramid, which was replaced by the “My Plate” format. It’s all the same message: eat a variety of foods from the various food groups.
The Nutrition Facts Panel is limited in its effectiveness to inform consumers; graphic representation of the dietary choices based on those nutrition facts is confusing. And then there is the ingredient list. Consumers want fewer ingredients in packaged foods; they want whole foods, fewer chemicals, natural/not synthetic additives, and less of what they don’t know and are not able to pronounce.
As food professionals we continually find ourselves in a reactive mode. When consumers wanted claims, we delivered claims (health, nutrition, function). When they were concerned about allergens, we delivered allergen labeling. Now we have a proposed rule for gluten-free labeling. Labeling requirements are pulling us along. Our ability to effectively market is compromised each time we react to the latest consumer concern or the stated consumer right to know.
We would all agree that consumers have a right to know what is in their food. FDA requires that which is “material” to health and safety to be on the label, but material to us as food scientists and food industry representatives may be seen through a different lens than that which is material to a consumer. Most recently, the trend of locally produced, natural sourcing, fewer ingredients, and less “production” has driven a conversation that we are not well equipped to have. We continue to tell consumers that our products are safe and nutritious, but that is not what they are asking, and we do not understand their questions.
Food scientists and technologists could serve the science of food and food production well by learning to listen to the “non-science” question, taking it in and delivering an “answer,” rather than a message that sounds to consumers like more of the same. We are increasingly urged to speak to audiences with interests in their food; it’s personal. We need to take our personal messages to them. We as scientists live to study our food systems and to understand them; we also live to eat and enjoy a life that includes food from that same food system. Fundamental to this is the safety of the food supply; that is first and foremost. Next is the high quality of the food we enjoy, we share with our family and friends, and that we have come to expect by reading food labels. Communicating the benefits of science to the food supply is a work in progress. Please join me in speaking out whenever the occasion arises.
Janet E. Collins, Ph.D., R.D., CFS,
IFT President, 2013–14
DuPont Corporate Regulatory Affairs