Why the Food Industry Can’t Stomach Transparency on Food Labels

, science and policy analyst, Center for Science and Democracy | July 21, 2016, 1:45 pm EDT
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reveal_sugarDVBack in May, UCS celebrated a huge victory for science-based policy and public health with the FDA’s unveiling of its revisions to the Nutrition Facts label. Among other changes, the rule will require companies to include a separate line for ‘Added Sugars’ and a percent daily value for it on food labels. As my colleague, Pallavi Phartiyal explains, it was not an easy road to victory, thanks to pushback from the powerful food industry since the rule was first proposed, and actually, since the earliest days of the Nutrition Facts label.

In our new fact sheet, we discuss the ways in which labeling can help consumers, especially those with certain dietary restrictions or illnesses. Despite this, the food industry has a record of fighting the consumers’ right to know on labels.

Consumers looking at food labels in a supermarket.

Consumers are interested in making informed decisions about the food they purchase. A study using nationally representative data found that 76 percent of adults reported reading the Nutrition Facts label when purchasing packaged foods. Photo: USDA

One of the most common industry talking points used to oppose labeling efforts is that disclosing additional information on labels will mislead or confuse consumers. This one is the most offensive to me because of the underlying assumption that consumers are simple-minded and readily confused by information. When the FDA was first proposing its rule to mandate the Nutrition Facts label in 1990, a Frito-Lay representative wrote in a comment to the agency, “it is certain that should all of the information that the FDA is currently proposing be included on a label, it would overwhelm and easily exceed the capacity of the average consumer to understand it.” Not only are these statements condescending, but rarely does the industry have robust evidence to back up its assertion.

After more than 25 years of Nutrition Facts labels on food packages, it’s safe to say that our minds have not exploded due to information overload. Required food labels have actually done far more good than harm. American consumers have achieved a high level of familiarity with the Nutrition Facts label, and research shows that, in particular, people with certain dietary restrictions or illnesses are more likely to read and use food labels for their purchasing decisions. First Lady Michelle Obama is a champion of the new label, saying that it will “make a real difference in providing families across the country the information they need to make healthy choices.” And UCS parents are excited about the new label, too.

The food industry has little independent scientific information to support its “confusion” claim and, as our fact sheet details, instead uses the following three tactics to create doubt surrounding the utility of food labels. Below, I use the FDA’s Nutrition Facts label proposal to illustrate each tactic.

1. Sowing doubt to yield a desired message

The powerful sugar and food industry used their lobbying dollars to spread doubt about the feasibility of the added sugar line on the Nutrition Facts label. American Crystal Sugar, a cooperative of sugar producers, donated $10,000 in 2014 and $10,000 in 2016 to the chair of the House of Representatives Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, while General Mills, Kraft Foods, ConAgra, and PepsiCo collectively donated more than $10,000 to him in 2014. As the FDA finalized its proposed rule to include grams and percent daily values of added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label, it is not surprising that report language was added to the 2017 Agriculture Appropriations Bill that used industry talking points claiming the FDA’s proposal would confuse and mislead consumers.

[Source: US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations 2016]

2. Conducting in-house studies with flawed parameters

The International Food Information Council (IFIC), an organization financed by some of the largest multinational food companies and with a board comprised predominantly of food industry representatives, authored a study looking at consumer perception of an added sugars label. Despite its own findings that the majority of consumers (81.4 percent) who read nutrition labels also rely on the ingredients list, the IFIC study design only allowed respondents to look at the current Nutrition Facts label, and not an accompanying ingredients list. Nor did the study evaluate how the “Added Sugars” line would affect actual food purchasing. Despite conducting a study with incomplete information, the IFIC concluded that its “data support the misleading nature of including an ‘Added Sugars’ line on the [Nutrition Facts label] by potentially altering the way consumers judge the healthfulness of a product, thus affecting the likelihood of purchasing said product.”

3. Shifting focus to consumer choice

Once the food industry lost its battle against the FDA’s added sugar rule, it pivoted toward an argument that the rule would not give consumers adequate choice for healthy diets, another tired tactic of the industry. The sugar industry’s trade association, The Sugar Association, issued a press release saying that the rule is “not grounded in science” and that “added sugars labeling may undermine consumer efforts to have healthier diets” and “result in consumer confusion, ultimately undermining consumer trust and increasing consumer apathy.”

Reality check

In reality, the FDA’s rule is grounded in science, as the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the World Health Organization have recommended that people get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. Scientific organizations, scientists, and health experts have voiced their enthusiastic support for the new rule. The food industry seems incapable of avoiding a knee-jerk reaction to deny science that is inconvenient for its bottom line, as UCS has pointed out many times before not only with the food industry, but with the chemical industry and oil and gas industry, as well.

Instead of fighting the science behind the utility of added sugar information on food labels, the food industry should be spending its time determining how to make truly healthier foods that don’t contain 130% of an adult’s recommended daily added sugar intake available to consumers. And the FDA should continue to make changes to its nutrition policies related to added sugar as it is compelled by new scientific evidence in order to arm Americans with the best knowledge to make healthy choices.

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