Transparency in Food Labeling

Food Labels Inform Consumer Choices— and Industry Pushes Back

Published Jul 19, 2016


Since the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required food companies to include Nutrition Facts labels on product packaging. This requirement followed decades of misleading health claims on food packages that made it harder for consumers to follow science-based nutritional recommendations.  

Decisions about food are decisions about health: numerous independent studies have linked poor diets to obesity and chronic disease. The Nutrition Facts label has been a critical tool in helping consumers navigate these decisions. Yet the food industry has opposed efforts to update the label and make it more useful for consumers. 

Clear, comprehensive nutrition labeling helps and empowers consumers to better navigate food decisions.
Photo: Creative Commons/D.H. Parks (Flickr)

Food labeling benefits

Research supports the idea that the Nutrition Facts label helps consumers make informed decisions about food. Studies have shown that 76 percent of adults read the label when purchasing packaged foods, and that more 60 percent of consumers use the information about sugar that the label provides. Local research has shown similar results, including a North Carolina study in which 78 percent of African American adults reported reading nutrition labels. 

These benefits aren't confined to packaged food purchases. Research also indicates that nutrition information can encourage healthier choices at restaurants. Customers tend to order lower-calorie foods when menus include calorie information. And county-level data have shown an association between restaurant calorie labeling requirements and decreases in body mass index.

Furthermore, the nutrition information on food labels is most valued by those who need it most: consumers with certain dietary restrictions, or illnesses such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, are more likely to use label information to make sure their dietary choices align with their doctors' recommendations.

As a bonus, labeling requirements can mean healthier options for consumers. Companies that are required to list unhealthy ingredients tend to put less of those ingredients in their products. For example, following the FDA’s 2003 decision to require labeling of trans fats, the food industry estimated that it had reduced trans fats content in foods 86 percent by 2015. 

Nutrition labeling has expanded to menus in certain restaurants and other food service establishments around the United States, and several studies show that it can encourage lower-calorie purchases.
Photo: Inti St. Clair/Blend

Industry opposition and misinformation

Despite the demonstrated value and popularity of clear nutrition labeling, food companies and trade associations have opposed labeling requirements, arguing that labeling confuses consumers. There is little independent science to support this argument, so the industry uses a variety of tactics to mislead the public. When the FDA in 2014 announced a proposal to include added sugar information on the Nutrition Facts label, the industry response featured several of these tactics:

Sowing doubt about the science. When studies showed that added sugar information is helpful to consumers, the Food Marketing Institute, a food retail trade organization, tried to inject uncertainty by questioning whether consumers would interpret the information correctly. 

Conducting flawed studies. A study by the International Food Information Council, an industry-backed group, concluded that the added sugars line would be "misleading"—but the study gave respondents incomplete information, and did not evaluate their actual food purchases. And a General Mills study concluded that "an added sugars declaration creates confusion" even though it didn't ask respondents about added sugar at all.

Changing the subject. Sometimes the industry diverts attention from scientific evidence by simply making unsupported claims about how labeling will affect consumer thinking—for instance, suggesting (as Campbell Soup Company did) that the added sugars line will "confuse consumers by taking their focus off of calories."

Consumers want more information, not less

Labeling by itself will not solve all our food-related health problems. But by enabling consumers to make informed decisions, it can play a crucial role in encouraging healthier food choices. 

Consumers have a right to science-based nutritional information about the foods they eat and feed their children. To safeguard this right, our federal agencies need to require that food labels reflect current scientific evidence, whether or not the industry objects. 

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