FDA Gets Tough With Misleading Front Food Labels

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

Food Aisle 2

The next time you head down the food aisle, check out the front food labels.

The front of food labels or front-of-packages (FOP) are misleading and often confusing, leading the consumer to believe that the food they are about to buy is healthy, when in fact it is not.

In a recent post, Healthy Eating? Find Out What Could Be Hiding In Your Foods, I asked the question if we need to be detectives to find out what’s hiding in our foods.

Unless you turn the package over to read the list of ingredients, it’s impossible to tell. The front of the food label is constructed in such a creative way. Words and symbols highlight the product as healthy. It captures your attention and it gives you the impression that the food you are about to buy is good for you, but it is not.

The government crackdowns on misleading food labels

FDA director Barbara O. Schneeman wrote recently in a letter to the industry that “The agency is currently analyzing FOP labels that appear to be misleading.”

Schneeman writes in the letter to the industry:

“FDA’s research has found that with FOP labeling, people are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts label on the information panel of foods (usually, the back or side of the package). It is thus essential that both the criteria and symbols used in front-of-package and shelf-labeling systems be nutritionally sound, well-designed to help consumers make informed and healthy food choices, and not be false or misleading.”

Accurate food labels are critical

Food labels need to be accurate and are necessary to help consumers make healthy choices. Accurate front food labels can help consumers easily identify which foods are healthy and which ones are not.

“FDA intends to monitor and evaluate the various FOP labeling systems and their effect on consumers’ food choices and perceptions. FDA recommends that manufacturers and distributors of food products that include FOP labeling ensure that the label statements are consistent with FDA laws and regulations” writes Schneeman in her letter to the industry.

The government wants to improve health

The FDA plans to develop a regulation that helps identify nutritional criteria that manufacturers have to meet before putting claims on the front label claiming their product nutritious.  The intent of the FDA is “to provide standardized, science-based criteria on which FOP nutrition labeling must be based.”

“We want to work with the food industry – retailers and manufacturers alike – as well as nutrition and design experts and the Institute of Medicine, to develop an optimal, common approach to nutrition-related FOP and shelf labeling that all Americans can trust and use to build better diets and improve their health,” writes Schneeman in her letter.

Take the front food label challenge test

The next time you’re at the supermarket and wandering down the aisles, check out some of the food labels on the front of the package—does it look healthy? Do you want to buy it? Now, turn it over and read the ingredients. You decide.

Stay tuned for more info on this topic.

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  1. 1

    “The government wants to improve health”?? There are numerous examples of the government acquiescing for the food industry instead of requiring proper labeling. Why do you think we still don’t label genetically modified foods as such?
    All of the quotes you published were vague political jargon that don’t actually promise anything. I’d like to see proof that the FDA is actually cracking down on labels.
    Also, the simple advice, “read the ingredients” is MUCH easier said than done. The FDA allows various terms for very simple ingredients (sugar, for example, has so many different forms and names, most of which we can’t pronounce let alone define from what’s given — just the name — on the back of a carton), which makes ingredient-reading hardly a proper barrier to unhealthy eating.
    Please don’t regurgitate the FDA’s meaningless good-guy PR. Your headline is highly misleading.

  2. 2

    Thank you for your comments, I greatly appreciate them. I’d like to clarify a few points.

    First, I don’t believe the title is misleading since the government is recognizing the fact that something needs to be done with the food industry—specifically food labeling. The government is recognizing that there’s a problem and that is good first step. Carrying out initiatives to fix the problem is a different issue.

    I quoted parts of Schneeman’s letter to the industry; not to highlight it as good PR, but to let the readers know that the FDA is beginning to address the issue. As I mentioned at the end of the post, “Stay tuned for more on this topic,” I wrote that because this issue is critical, it shouldn’t be taken lightly and it needs to be followed up.

    As you mentioned, the quotes were “vague political jargon that don’t actually promise anything. I’d like to see proof that the FDA is actually cracking down on labels.” I agree with you. I’d also like to see exactly how the FDA plans to crack down on the labels. This post was written to shed some light on the issue and now that the FDA has shared its concerns with consumers, I am interested; as I am sure others are to find out how the FDA will be attacking this issue.

    I also agree with you that reading the ingredients is “MUCH easier said than done.” Sometimes there are so many ingredients listed that it’s hard to tell what is healthy and what is not. However, I have stressed this issue before ( http://healthin30.com/2009/09/healthy-eating-find-out-what-could-be-hiding-in-your-foods/ ) and it is not one I feel should be marginalized in any way. In truth. it is as you say “simple advice” yet there are times when simple advice is best. There are many individuals I know who have a medical condition such as High Blood Pressure. They will buy a product where the label claims in big bold lettering “Low Sodium” or “Reduced Sodium” when in fact a simple reading of the ingredients will tell them there is still too much sodium in this product for them. This also happens with products labeled “Low Fat”, “All Natural”, “Organic”, etc.. .

    The point is, we as consumers need to be educated and we need to put some effort into understanding what we buy just as we would if we were buying a big screen TV or a car and although the list of ingredients may still be confusing there are simple things we can do with a little extra effort which may help. This is a separate issue from the food labeling, however, I feel the two go hand in hand and I am curious as to whether the FDA plans on addressing the ingredient issue as well.

    I will continue to bring you information on this topic as it is truly an important one. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

    For those who have not read the letter, here it is, http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/ucm187208.htm Guidance for Industry: Letter Regarding Point of Purchase Food Labeling, and it’s signed:

    Barbara O. Schneeman, Ph.D.
    Office of Nutrition, Labeling and Dietary Supplements
    Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
    Food and Drug Administration

    Thank you again for your comments. I will be writing more on this issue.

  3. 3


    Great post. Glad to see that something is being done about the fancy advertising on packages. I agree with you point about reading labels. I suffer from Coronary Heart Disease and have had to become label conscious. I can’t tell you how many times I have picked up an item that says “Low Fat” or “Reduced Fat” only to realize that by reading the ingredients list that this was not a good product for me. I agree with Mo’s comment about confusion in the ingredients. I have had to learn that -0- grams of fat still means there could be up to half a gram of fat in a product. And trying to remember and keep straight the types of fat that are good or bad Trans, Polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, etc is challenging, however, I have had to take responsibility for my own health and have to educate myself on what I can and cannot eat. I used to be like everyone else who went food shopping just throwing things into my cart without reading a label. My health is far too important for me to do that anymore and although I now spend more time food shopping, I feel better and I am keeping healthy. Thanks for the info.

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