As Americans' collective girth continues to expand, the pressure on food manufacturers to produce less fattening, more nutritious products shows no signs of letting up.
The movement toward healthier retail foods is nothing new, but it got a big boost when first lady Michelle Obama made it a priority after her husband was elected president in 2008. More than one-third of children and more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In December President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, designed to improve the quality and nutrition of school breakfasts, lunches and other foods sold in schools.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued in January 2011, include 23 key recommendations for helping to improve the health of the general population, such as eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, replacing solid fats with oils and reducing consumption of sodium, trans fats and sugar and refined grains. The new recommendations will encourage food manufacturers to take a hard look at the nutritional profiles of their products, experts say.
But government agencies aren't the only ones demanding consistent, transparent food labeling, says Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com. "We hear from consumers....What they also want is some standard they can actually believe in day in and day out and it doesn't change," he says. "Everybody wins if (food labeling is) consistent and transparent."
U.S. Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Margaret Hamburg is making front-of-package nutrition labeling a priority by calling on companies to ensure the scientific accuracy and usefulness of the information on their food products. Under a directive from Congress, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with the Institute of Medicine to provide recommendations for a standardized front-of-package nutrition rating system that would be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The groups' first phase report, "Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols," which was published in October 2010, states that current industry labeling initiatives provide various and conflicting nutrition information that may confuse consumers. A second phase report is due out this fall.
In the meantime, in late January the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute launched Nutrition Keys, a front-of-the-package labeling program supported by a $50 million marketing campaign. The voluntary initiative takes into account government recommendations to help consumers make informed food choices, so it will be easier to find saturated fat, sodium, sugar and calorie content, says Mary Sophos, executive vice president for policy and strategic planning at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
GMA also expects the FDA to announce this year a proposal for more comprehensive food labeling reform that would impact the back-of-package nutrition facts panel on consumer products, says Regina Hildwine, GMA senior director of science policy labeling and standards. "We expect that it will be sweeping and will change the content of all nutritional values out there," with some current requirements removed and new ones added, Hildwine says. "The potential is there that every food company would have to change their labels."
Looking down the road, the new menu labeling requirements expected to go into effect in 2012 are also likely to impact retail food products, say experts. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, enacted in March 2010, stipulates that restaurants with 20 or more locations must provide calorie information about food items on their menus and posted menu boards. The requirements already are causing restaurants to become more selective in the products they use in their recipes, and that will have a ripple effect on the food industry, says Betsy Craig, chief executive of MenuTrinfo in Fort Collins, Colo. "The food manufacturers have to pay attention (to) what nutrition information is in their raw products," Craig says, because it will determine whether restaurants buy their products.
The Affordable Care Act also amended the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include a provision requiring vending machine operators to disclose the calorie content of items they sell so that consumers can make informed choices. The measure is expected to encourage vendors to include healthier items in the machines.
Riding the wave
Many food manufacturers are already positioning themselves to leverage this new wave of heightened health consciousness.
Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co., for example, has reduced the amount of sodium, sugar and fats in at least 200 products since 2007, the company reports. And Minneapolis-based General Mills says it improved the nutrition of 45 percent of its domestic retail business between 2005 and 2009 by cutting calories, particularly from sugar and fat, while adding calcium, fiber and vitamins.
Both are members of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which launched in October 2009 with four members and now has 170 members, including 42 corporations, says Lisa Gable, the foundation's president. Together, the foundation's members have pledged to cut 1.5 trillion calories from the marketplace by 2015.
"The companies each made individual commitments," Gable says, noting that the foundation hasn't mandated any specific changes. Instead, the companies determine the best way to help fight obesity, diabetes and other illnesses linked to diet. The foundation is one of several private initiatives led by food companies and organizations committed to improving Americans' health through better nutrition.
But the food industry is still facing critics who contend that its voluntary nutrition labeling efforts don't go far enough.
Although an online survey of about 7,400 consumers—conducted during fall 2010 and funded by the Grocery Manufacturers Association—suggests consumers liked front-of-package nutrition labeling and said it would help them make informed food choices, the Nutrition Keys program has drawn criticism.
In a perspective in the June 23, 2011, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, suggests Nutrition Keys could "lock in a system that would change food choices as little as possible and preempt the imposition of an alternative system that would be based on the available and relevant science."
But Nutrition Keys largely lines up with the Institute of Medicine recommendations, according to GMA. The group felt "we needed to move faster and go further" than a government initiative, which would likely take three years to arrive at final rules, Hildwine says.
"We thought this would be the fastest way to get the information out on front-of-pack (with) something that would be consistent and address the government's chief objectives," adds Sophos. "All of the things being equal, companies felt they could do a better job of developing that kind of communication to consumers than the government could."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest also has criticized the food industry's voluntary labeling efforts, suggesting among other con cerns that the serving sizes food manufacturers use as the basis of their nutritional-content calculations often aren't true to life. Based on the center's consumer research conducted in January 2010, half of respondents reported they consumed an entire 18.8-ounce can of Campbell's Chunky Soup, while the product label indicates the can contains about two servings, CSPI stated in a March 2010 report, "Food Labeling Chaos."
But Hildwine says the government sets the rules on serving sizes. "Food companies don't deviate," she says.
More recently, proposed exemptions to the federal menu labeling law also have come under fire. More than 80 organizations and nutrition experts signed a letter to the FDA July 5 urging the agency to include cafes in superstores, hotels and airlines as well as food sold in movie theaters, casinos, bowling alleys and stadiums under the requirements. The group also opposes the exemption for alcoholic beverages.
Too much government?
Some caution that the government could be walking a fine line as it moves closer toward mandating nutrition. The food companies "have a responsibility to put out a safe product," but they shouldn't have to worry about whether it's going to make people fat, says Steve Siebold, author of "Die Fat or Get Tough" and a self-described mental toughness coach in Lake Lanier, Ga. "It's up to us to educate ourselves and make smart decisions," says Siebold.
And food labeling already is a middle ground, suggests Parke Wilde, associate professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. "I don't think the government should be telling adults what to eat, but this whole labeling approach is appropriate nutritional policy for adults," he says.
Cutting out some of the marketing noise in myriad front-of-pack labeling systems will help consumers make better-informed choices, he says. "The issue here isn't the
government mandating something, but rather the government ensuring that consumers aren't deceived by front-of-pack labeling that manufacturers are putting on voluntarily," Wilde says.
Food companies might be better served by government labeling standards that apply equally to all food companies, Wilde says.
The question of how much government control is too much depends in part on whether a food product's target audienceis children or adults. More government intervention might be appropriate, for example, when companies are advertising their products to children who can't be expected to consider the underlying profit motive.
But ultimately, consumers collectively decide which products succeed or fail at the cash register, Siebold says. Once consumers have adequate nutritional information, what they choose to eat "comes down to personal choice," Siebold says. "It's not the govern ment's job to be responsible for our health."