Research Article

Nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle hold a special place in my heart that most people would have trouble understanding. I grew up with a fairly normal diet for a picky child. Healthy eating was never a true focus in my household, similarly to most people. Highly processed snacks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were staples in our family. As I got older, my nutrition habits stayed the same and as someone that never really excelled at sports, my general health was definitely not up to par. In high school I began hanging around the wrong crowds which led to a lot of drinking and poor decision making. This continued on for several years until I realized that I needed to make a change and start respecting and becoming more conscious of what I was putting into my body. I found a passion for fitness and truly felt like I had found who I was while at the gym. I realized that if I wanted to give my best effort in the gym, I needed to make some serious changes with my nutrition and daily habits. The more I started learning about nutrition, the more I realized how misinformed I was about healthy eating my entire life. I had zero knowledge of portion sizes, macronutrients, saturated fats, any of it. It quickly became clear to me that the majority of the general public had the same knowledge, or lack of, when it come to nutrition. As I continued to learn how to fuel my body, my passion for all things health and fitness related grew. I eventually changed my major at Plymouth State to Interdisciplinary Studies so that I could study health and fitness marketing. In the midst of all of these changes, I decided to make it my mission to teach and inform as many people as possible about changes they can make to live the healthy lifestyle everyones body deserves. 

After taking several health and nutrition classes at PSU, along with doing my own research, I started to become more and more skeptical about the information the public is told about nutrition and being healthy. I recognize that most people do not research, or probably care about certain health subjects as much as I do. Despite this, I believe that most people want to be healthy, or make some kind of attempt to be healthy. Considering this, it frustrates me to no end knowing how difficult it is to get accurate information on healthy living. Much of what society believes about health and nutrition comes from magazines, TV ads and social media influencers who are not qualified to be giving that kind of information. While brainstorming what I wanted to do for this research project, I realized that while changing the inaccurate and misleading information that is out there might be impossible, I do have the opportunity to potentially make people stop and question what they are told. One of the first places my mind went to was where people make their initial health choices for themselves and their family, the grocery store. I’ve always wondered about the accuracy of the claims on the front of food packages displayed at the grocery store. Are certain heavily processed cereals really considered “heart healthy” and backed by scientific research? Do food companies have to abide by certain regulations, or are they able to mislead consumers into buying their product by labeling their products as organic or healthy if they so choose. Trying to be healthy in todays society with the overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips is difficult enough. It is stressful to think that many food corporations are distributing information to the public that is not actually accurate. The purpose behind food label regulations is to help customers make the best informed decisions about the foods they choose to purchase. So what happens when those regulations intended to help consumers, actually end up negatively impacting them and their health, without their knowledge?

In todays society, obesity is a huge concern to the welfare of the public. Misleading information represented by the food industry is a major contributor of obesity in our country, among many other factors. Often times customers believe a product they purchased to be healthy because of the packaging and labels that make certain health claims. Unfortunately despite customers attempts at making better choices, many of these labels and health claims are far from the truth. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the agency responsible for regulating food labels, but ultimately lack the regulatory authority and necessary resources to address these questionable labeling practices. Although food labeling may seem like a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, addressing it may help individuals make better informed decisions on what they choose to consume. 

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Many nutritionists and health experts are demanding the FDA to more clearly define food label claims for things like “made with whole grains” “contains real fruit” and “low sugar.” These more strict regulations would prevent food companies from leading consumers to believe that a food is healthier than it actually is. The current packaging choice language and images often lead customers to consume products that are highly processed and loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients under the misconception that they are making healthy choices. A frighteningly large number of processed cereals and snack foods boast about healthy ingredients such as real fruit or vegetables, when in reality, they contain tiny amounts of those healthy ingredients and are loaded with heavily processed crap. Allowing customers to purchase these items that are actually unhealthy, with the belief that they are making good choices is not only extremely misleading and unlawful, but it also effects the producers of truly healthy foods and their businesses. For this reason, nutritionists are pushing for regulations that require stricter protocol for definitions of terms like “healthy” and “all natural.”

According to the Institute of Food Technologies (IFT) “In the United States, food laws such as the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), Food Quality Protection Act, Food Allergens labeling, and Consumer Protection Act impose different labeling requirements on foods and beverages. These laws were passed to prevent consumer deception, ensure fair trade practices, ensure food safety, improve public health, inform about possible health risks (allergen labeling) etc. Under provisions of the U.S. law, importers of food products intending to market in the U.S. are responsible for ensuring that the products are safe, sanitary, and labeled according to U.S. requirements.” Although no one can argue the fact that food regulatory laws have improved in recent years, there is still a long way to go to eliminate customer deception. 

The FDA does have current laws in place to avoid misleading labels to make it on the shelfs, but the majority of them are too vague and allow for too many loopholes. The current laws for label claims for foods and dietary supplements fall into three categories. The first is covered under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 authorized health claim which permits the use of claims on labels that characterize a relationship between a food, food component or dietary supplement ingredient and risk of a disease. The second category is health claims based on authoritative statements: the FDAMA authorizes use of health claims based on an authoritative statement of the National Academy of Sciences or a scientific body of the U.S. government with responsibility for public health protection or nutrition research. The final category for health claims is a qualified health claim which provides a mechanism to request FDA to review the scientific evidence when there is emerging evidence for a relationship between a food substance and reduced risk of a disease or health-related condition, but the evidence is not well enough established to meet the significant scientific agreement standard required for FDA to issue an authorized health claim regulation.

Reviewing the laws that food manufacturers need to abide by makes it easier to understand how so many companies are able to get away with misleading claims and labeling on their packages. Those laws are extremely vague and allow for too much room for interpretation. Allowing companies to make health related claims without sufficient scientific evidence to back it up should not be allowed in any circumstance. If companies choose to make nutrient content claims on their packaging, they must follow the guidelines of the NLEA (Nutrition Labeling and Education Act) which permits claims that characterize the level of a nutrient such as free, high, and low, or compare the level of a nutrient in a food to that of another food, using terms like more, reduced, and lite. These nutrient claims are then authorized by the FDA. The fact that the FDA authorizes these claims reiterates the fact that the organization as a whole, lacks the resources necessary to regulate this industry and eliminate misleading marketing schemes. 

My next area of research was focused on the laws and regulations of other countries to see how the United States compares. Not far into my research process it was made clear that the US has a much more relaxed and unorganized system when it came to food labeling and nutrition claims when compared to other countries. According to researchers, there are currently sixty four countries around the world that require labeling of genetically modified foods. Unlike most other developed countries, the U.S. has no laws requiring labeling of genetically modified food.Aside from GMO labeling, most other countries seem to be much more advanced when it comes to health food claims and the regulation of this. According to European press regarding this study of health claims “EU decision makers adopted a regulation on the use of nutrition and health claims for foods which lays down harmonized EU-wide rules for the use of health or nutritional claims on foods based on nutrient profiles. Nutrient profiles are nutritional requirements that foods must meet in order to bear nutrition and health claims. One of the key objectives of this regulation is to ensure that any claim made on a food label in the EU is clear and substantiated by scientific evidence.”While the United States FDA has cracked down on some health claims, its regulations could be much stronger, following the lead of many other countries, many of which do not allow health claims to be used at all, if not throughly inspected and approved.

Six years ago the UK introduced a front of package labeling system which rates food product with three different colors depending on their nutritional value. Other countries have developed a list of healthy food criteria for different food categories. Foods that meet the criteria display a specific symbol on the front of their package.The United States has made several attempts at regulating this industry in the past. One popular program that was launched in the US was called Smart Choices. The intention behind this program was to use one standardized logo to identify the more healthful and nutritious choices within specific categories. Unfortunately, this program was a corporation-controlled system, that inaccurately labeled highly processed foods such as Fruit Loops as a “Smart Choice”. Clearly this program had ulterior motives and intentions outside of improving the publics health and was ultimately dropped, for good reason. So what is the next step our country needs to take towards a more regulated system? Following in the footsteps of other countries, it is in the US’s best interest to find a consistent and highly regulated symbol system. The Center for Science in the Public Interests explains “The FDA should identify the most effective front of package nutrition labeling approach for empowering consumers to choose healthier foods. The FDA and the USDA should then propose regulations for a mandatory new labeling system. The FDA and the USDA should prohibit the use of competing front-of label nutrition labeling schemes once a national system has been implemented.” These changes to our food labeling system could make a huge impact on public health. Following one system like many other countries do would allow customers to pick healthier options and simplify the label regulation process.

Sources:

Truman, Cynthia M. Food Issues, Policies, and Safety Considerations. Nova Science Publishers, Inc, 2016.

Edenbrandt, Anna Kristina, et al. “A Hedonic Analysis of Nutrition Labels Across Product Types and Countries.” European Review of Agricultural Economics, vol. 45, no. 1, 2018, pp. 101–120.

Laufer, Peter. Organic : A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling. Lyons Press, Imprint of Globe Pequot Press, 2014.

Jaworowska, Agnieszka. “Nutritional Challenges and Health Implications of Takeaway and Fast Food.” Nutrition Reviews, vol. 71, no. 5, 2013, pp. 310–318.

Hemphill, Thomas A, and Syagnik Banerjee. “Genetically Modified Organisms and the U.s. Retail Food Labeling Controversy: Consumer Perceptions, Regulation, and Public Policy.” Business and Society Review, vol. 120, no. 3, 2015, pp. 435–464

Lynch, Holly Fernandez, and I. Glenn Cohen, editors. Fda in the Twenty-First Century : The Challenges of Regulating Drugs and New Technologies. Columbia University Press, 2015. 

Beyranevand, Laurie J. “Regulating Inherently Subjective Food Labeling Claims.” Environmental Law, vol. 47, no. 3, 2017, pp. 543–556.

Walker, M. J. “Health and Nutrition Claims – Guidance, Regulation and Self-Regulation.” Nutrition Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 1, 2017, pp. 69–79.

Fernan, Catherine, et al. “Health Halo Effects from Product Titles and Nutrient Content Claims in the Context of ‘Protein’ Bars.” Health Communication, vol. 33, no. 12, 2018, pp. 1425–1433.

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