Bad Medicine

Improve the Food, Not Just the Food Label (Op-Ed)

(Image credit: Food labels via Shutterstock)

The nutrition labels on food may soon get a makeover, as the Food and Drug Administration announced plans in February to revise what information appears on the labels. A 90-day public comment period is now underway, after which the FDA will issue its final rule.

Nutritionists and consumer advocates have voiced their desires for improvements, such as a more prominent display of the number of calories or the inclusion of the level of added sugars. Yet lost in all this discussion about how to improve labels is the fact that food sold today is so unhealthy that it requires a label.

Therefore, what's really needed is an improvement to the quality of the food, not just the food labels.

If you walk around the perimeter of most grocery markets (or shop at a farmers' market), you will see the foods that don't have labels, or don't really need them. We call these whole foods. For example, with fruits and vegetables, what you see is what you get. [9 Snack Foods: Healthy or Not?]

In broccoli, the only ingredient is broccoli. And broccoli is healthy — unless it is sold in the center of the grocery market, in a can (where ingredients usually include salt, sugar and various preservatives) or in a bag frozen (where ingredients often include the aforementioned sugar and preservatives and some gooey cheese to entice the kids).

And then, there are milk and eggs. No one expects to find labeling on these natural products, because nothing is added. Yogurt shouldn't require a label if it is traditional yogurt, which contains just milk and bacterial cultures. Anything else is industry-created, yogurt-based snack food.

And for fish, poultry, beef and pork, minimal labeling is needed. Anyone unaware that generous, daily servings of fatty beef and pork are unhealthy has been living in a cave.

Bread used to be made of wheat, water, salt and yeast. When you buy real bread, you'll notice there is no nutrition label. What comes in bags with twist ties isn't bread but rather a wheat-based product.

We should face the facts and understand that many foods sold in boxes or bags, and produced in a factory by the food industry, are unhealthy. The new food labels should delineate the degree to which these products are unhealthy (how much fat, sugar and salt — what I call the unholy trinity), not how healthy (how much vitamin A, etc.).

In short, it can be hard to trust the food industry. Some of the so-called healthy foods it creates — instant oatmeal, energy bars, multigrain breads — are essentially candy, and can give people a false sense of security about their health. Its voluntary labeling schemes also have been a joke.

One recent failure has been the "Smart Choices Program," in which foods got a big green check mark of approval on the front of their packaging for containing healthful elements. This seemed very easy to follow. But if you look at the foods that got the check mark, you might find chocolate ice pops, which earned a check by virtue of being low fat, and sugary breakfast cereals, because they are fortified with vitamins.

Indeed, the program's sponsors — Kraft, Unilever and other big players — benefited from having most of their products getting that check. In 2009, they voluntarily halted the program that they voluntarily started after the FDA issued a statement saying it was "analyzing" the misleading food labels.

Another labeling scheme, which is still active, is the Whole Grain stamp from the industry-sponsored Whole Grains Council. For example, Lucky Charms cereal has such a stamp because it is made from oats — a whole grain — regardless of the fact that it is reportedly "magically delicious" from copious marshmallows (second ingredient) containing sugar, corn starch and corn syrup, followed by more sugar (third ingredient), more corn syrup (fifth ingredient) and more corn starch (sixth ingredient).

General Mills, which manufactures Lucky Charms, is a sponsor of the Whole Grains Council.

A better labeling scheme would state things such as "Caution: This product has more than four ingredients, most of which you won't recognize" and "Warning: The healthy elements of this product, such as its low fat or sugar content, do not make this product healthy."

Better foods exist; you'd be wise to forgo anything that needs a label. Because in the end, the amount of vitamin A in Lucky Charms, however prominently displayed and clearly explained, may just not matter.

Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of "Food at Work" and "Bad Medicine." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.