Young and Hungry

Front of Package Labeling: Will It Help Reduce Obesity?

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One of the recurring topics at the Atlantic Food Summit today was front-of-package labeling, with its promise of giving consumers a quick reference on whether the food in question is healthy or not. The label could be a grading system or a color-coded system. It might even be a simple statement of calories per serving (with a much more realistic idea of an American "serving").

But whatever the label turns out to be, Summit panelists all seemed to agree that food packaging must include some basic, easy-to-digest information to supplement the often baffling "nutrition facts" on the back or side of products. Consumers also need information they can trust on the front of products, not some breakfast cereal promising to reduce your cholesterol.

"They are confused, very confused" over packaging promises, said Stephen Sundlof, director for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Secondly, they don't believe anything."

And it only seems to get worse by the day, he added. Once one company makes a wild claim, another company feels the pressure to one-up the competition. "After a while," Sundlof said, "it becomes a race to the bottom."

This week, in fact, the FDA sent out warning letters to 17 producers for making misleading claims about their products' nutrition and/or health benefits.

The proposed, apparently voluntary front-of-package labels would be one way, panelists believed, to build more trust and provide consumers with information on which products are truly healthy for their families. The labels may even help with our country's obesity epidemic.

Or would they?

The afternoon panel on "The Way We Eat," moderated by Atlantic senior editor Corby Kummer, talked extensively about obesity, and if they agreed on one thing, it's this: There is no silver bullet to end obesity in America, particularly with children.

Making school lunches healthier won't necessarily do the trick, even if school administrators across the country adopt Brian Wansink's "Cash for Cookies" program, in which children are not allowed to pay for their cookies or brownies with a school lunch card. They instead have to pay cash. Wansink, the John Dyson professor of Consumer Behavior at Cornell University, believes that children would rather spend their own money on iTunes than cafeteria cookies.

Catherine Woteki, the global director of Scientific Affairs with Mars, Inc., believes that front-of-package labels and better school lunches won't make much of a dent in obesity without the assistance of the "nutrition gatekeepers," who influence about 70 percent of what children eat. Who are these mysterious gatekeepers? Parents.

The afternoon panelists cast their net even wider when reminded by audience members of other factors that could influence obesity, such as poverty and even social justice issues.

By the time the panelists adjourned in the mid-afternoon, it seemed clear that the front-of-packaging label idea wouldn't solve our nation's obesity crisis by itself.

Photo by ashleigh290 via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License