Opinion

The Future of Food Labels: FDA Considers Front-of-Packaging

Published May 29, 2024
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As the vast availability of information on the Internet empowers a growing health-conscious consumer base to scrutinize the macro- and micronutrient content of the food they buy and consume, the FDA is expected to publish a new standardized front-of-packaging nutrition labeling on June 24. The initiative is expected to change consumer buying behavior and influence manufacturers to reformulate their food and packaging.

Importance of Food Labeling: How Shifting Consumer Perceptions Affect Food Labels

As consumer perceptions of health, dietary trends, and tastes evolve, the information displayed on food labels and food packaging also changes. An example of how new information has influenced food packaging is processed meat. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the carcinogenic harm of consuming processed meat and red meat. WHO identified nitrates, commonly used as preservatives, which can transform into a harmful substance called nitrosamines in high heat. Thus, the WHO classified processed meat in the same category as cigarettes, IARC Group 1 (Carcinogenic to Humans).

WHO’s announcement ignited a wave of concern and a shift in perception. In 2024, nine years after the announcement, processed meat producers and companies in the US still heavily emphasize healthiness and the absence of ‘nitrates and preservatives.’

Tridge Observations of US Processed Meats

Figure 1. Processed Meat Marketing in Major US Retailers

Source: Tridge

Tridge visited major retail stores in eight different countries to observe the different food labels and five subcategories of processed meat, including sausage, bacon, salami, ham, and canned meat. Based on Tridge's observations, processed meat in the US had heavier marketing of its healthiness on the packaging, price tags, and signs.

WHO’s announcement and shifting public perception have compelled companies to market the healthiness of their products to alleviate concerns. As scientific research and studies shed light on the long-lasting harmful effects of chemicals and additives commonly found in everyday grocery items, there is a growing demand for stricter food labeling regulations.

FDA’s New Front-of-Packaging Proposal

Food labels are designed to increase food ingredient transparency. This ensures that consumers can make informed decisions about their dietary needs and preferences. However, this objective is not always achieved. The long list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients and chemicals written on the nutritional information makes it difficult for everyday consumers to interpret what they are buying. This leads to misinformed consumers buying food that exceeds their daily caloric requirements and unconscious consumption of unhealthy dietary ingredients such as saturated fat, refined sugar, and other food additives.

Although some US companies voluntarily put nutritional facts on their packaging in an initiative called ‘Facts Up Front,’ where key nutritional information such as the volume of sugar and sodium are displayed, nationwide front-of-packaging mandates are increasing. In 2016, Chile mandated a black nutritional warning label for food exceeding sugar, salt, saturated fat, or calorie thresholds. This allowed consumers to identify foods containing high amounts of unhealthy ingredients quickly and it facilitated decision-making. Other neighboring countries, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, adopted this black warning label as well.

More and more countries outside Latin America are taking the initiative, such as Canada, one of the most recent applicants of front-of-packaging nutritional labels. The US may soon join this movement. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a new front-of-package mandate, with the proposal to be published on June 24.

How will Front-of-Packaging Affect the US Food Industry: Lessons Learned from Latin America

Changed Consumer Behavior

Behavioral changes in Chile and Mexico provide insights into how the FDA's new proposal may affect US consumers and manufacturers. A study the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) published found that after the Chilean government implemented the policy, overall purchases of food containing sugar declined by 10%, while sales of food containing sodium, fat, and calories dropped by 5%, 4%, and 4%, respectively. The study further found that among the products that exceeded the nutrient threshold, purchases of those that were categorized as 'high-in' calories declined by 24%, and sodium by 37%.

Fierce Opposition from the Food Industry

After the policy was implemented, several companies in Mexico reformulated their ingredients to be free from warning labels. According to El Poder del Consumidor, a civil society association established to defend consumer rights and promote consumers' awareness of their responsibilities, only 5.9% of cereal brands were below the sugar, fat, and sodium threshold and were exempt from the warning labels prior to the policy implementation. After the policy was implemented, that number increased to 11%.

Although some complied with the new regulations, many large corporations filed lawsuits challenging them, especially during the second phase of the regulation, when products exceeding the threshold were not allowed to depict characters on their packaging. Some major food producers taking legal action include Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg Company.

While many have taken the legal route, some are also exploiting loopholes by deploying creative tactics. Some companies redesigned the front and back packaging identically to give the impression that the product is exempt from the warning label. Some even print out similar labels near the warning label, making it hard to identify. Given the historical resistance of major corporations in Mexico and the US food industry to new regulations, the FDA's proposal is anticipated to face opposition.

The updated food label benefits consumers' wellness, especially those with lower nutritional knowledge. However, the implementation of this regulation is still up in the air, as key factors such as the upcoming 2024 presidential election could influence its passing or alter key aspects of it.

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