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Happy New Year, FDA! Now... resolve to regulate food package claims! *[Updated with photo of a 'misleading cake']

January 4, 2010 |  9:16 pm


[Updated, 11:35 a.m.: What the heck is the cake in that picture? It's a mock-up by the Center for Science in the Public Interest filled with wording of the kind seen on many food labels. The consumer advocacy group has a New Year's resolution for the Food and Drug Administration: Come down hard on these kinds of misleading messages.]

Just in time for 2010, the well-known food cop group sent the FDA a 158-page report listing "the most egregious examples of false claims, ingredient obfuscations and other labeling shenanigans," as the CSPI press folks put it. The report, dubbed "Food Labeling Chaos," recommends a complete overhaul of labels to get rid of such problems as:

  • Packaged foods that say they contain several servings when in all likelihood the entire contents will be consumed in one sitting;
  • Products that proudly proclaim they contain no trans fats when they may contain a lot of saturated fat;
  • Foods are promoted as supporting the immune system or supporting healthy arteries when there's scant evidence they're likely to do so.

CSPI recommends, among other things, that:

  • The ingredients list should be reformulated so that, to name one example, all the different sources of sugars -- sugar, high fructose corn syrup, yada yada -- be grouped together, enabling consumers to get a better handle on just how much added sugar a product contains.
  • Caffeine content should be added. (We recently wrote about that issue in the Health section.)
  • Meat and poultry should have to disclose its nutrition information as well. Like, what about all that salty broth many cuts of meat are injected with?
  • Serving sizes should be reworked to approach something a little realistic. Who's going to eat half a 2.5-ounce package of Fruity Snacks? Or half a microwaveable tub of "Healthy Choice" minestrone soup?
  • Get rid of "qualified health claims" that allow companies to note weak health-nutrition links that  aren't strongly supported by science, as well as the meaningless but optimistic-sounding statements such as "to help protect healthy joints," currently on a glucosamine-laced Minute Maid orange juice boxes.
  • The whole nutrition facts and ingredients list panel could use a revamp, and the key nutrition information should be presented in a nice, clear way on the front of food packages.

The report contains a picture of the current nutrition facts label and a reworked one that CSPI thinks would be easier to parse.

To illustrate how misleading some packages can be, the report has a cute mock-up of a slice of fictitious "Tasty Living Double Chocolate Layer Cake" -- in a wrapper peppered with claims.  "Made with whole wheat!" (How much whole wheat?) "High in Fiber!" (How is fiber defined?) "0 grams trans fat." (Yes, but it could be swimming in palm kernel oil...) "Supports Immunity!" (Um, cake does that how?) "All Natural" (a term the FDA has not defined). "Contains Cherries." (In picograms? nanograms? femtograms?)

Absurd -- except that we have lots of real-life silliness of that kind on our food packages today. I especially like the listed example of Gerber "Graduates," juice treats for preschoolers, in a package that is covered with pictures of whole fruits and that proclaims it's made with "real fruit juice concentrate and natural fruit flavors" and is "all natural." Each serving contains 17 grams of added sugar. Hardly any of the pictured fruits are in it. The main ingredients are corn syrup and sugar. 

-- Rosie Mestel

Image: That's not a real cake, so, no, you can't buy it -- but the messages on the label look an awful lot like the ones we see on packaged foods all over the supermarket.  Credit: CSPI