11.25.2013 7:47 AM

Bill Would Clarify Food Labels

If passed, the bill would make it easier to identify junk foods disguised as healthy choices.

food labels that lie
Photo: Masterfile / Photo Illustration Gloria Dawson

By Dan Shapley

A bill introduced in Congress last week with both House and Senate sponsors aims to clean up the labeling of foods on grocery store shelves, eliminating some of the deceptive practices that often fool consumers into choosing junk foods disguised as healthy options.

Chief target of the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013:Front-of-label packaging claims that now trumpet a food's ostensibly healthy attributes, like its whole-grain content, while avoiding any mention of the content linked to obesity, heart disease and other serious public health problems, like saturated fat, calories and added sugars.

If the bill ever becomes law, consumers would become familiar with a standard front-of-package lable, as we've become accustomed to the nutrition information label found on the back.

Also in lawmakers' sights: The words "natural," "made with whole grains," and "healthy," which now can be used, like "organic" was before an enforceable federal definition was enacted in 1990, on any foods marketers deem worthy of the term. And a cynic might suggest that means any food that might sell better with it.

"Healthy" would be reserved for foods that fit the Dietary Guidelines for Americansc criteria, which emphasize three major goals: Balancing calories with physical activity to manage weight; consuming more of certain foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and seafood; and consuming less foods high in sodium, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars and refined grains.

Based on those definitions, one might assume that if Congress gets the definition of "natural" right, it would be nearly synonmous with "healthy.

Additionally, the bill seeks to improve ingredient lists so they're easier for consumers to understand at a glance, which would benefit those seeking to avoid allergens, added sugars (in their various forms) or preservatives, color additives or those unpronouncables that some food advocates tell us are best left on the shelf.

Finally, the bill would require other changes, ranging from disclosure of caffeine content to a revision of portion sizes to reflect the amount of food we typically eat, which might lead to some interesting revisions. If a serving size of Doritos isn't 11 chips, how many chips is a serving?

The bill has the early support of consumer advocates, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Consumers Union. But it likely faces a long, uphill battle toward a vote, since its only sponsors are Democrats.



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