Flaws in the FDA's Food Labeling Laws

May 27, 2014

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a rule to revamp the labeling requirements on the back of food products, explains Sherzod Abdukadirov, research fellow at the Mercatus Center. The rule would require labels to reflect the latest scientific evidence on nutrition.

As shoppers roam grocery store aisles, many rely on the "Nutrition Facts" labels to assess how healthy a food product is. The motivation behind the FDA's new rule was to update the recommended daily values, in order to reflect the most recent nutrition research.

However, the FDA failed to embrace this opportunity, making small design changes supported by little empirical evidence:

  • The agency provided just one study, which looks at only two of the FDA's 13 proposed changes, in support of its labeling redesign. Moreover, the study found no support for increasing the font size for calories. Nevertheless, the FDA proposed a font size increase.
  • Moreover, the FDA has proposed adding an "added sugars" section, with the hope of reducing obesity. But again, the FDA did not provide any empirical evidence to support the change. Additionally, the Institute of Medicine and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans conclude that consuming added sugars does not increase obesity.
  • In fact, many believe that the "added sugar" change could actually increase obesity, because studies indicate that consumers of low-fat foods feel less guilt about their food consumption, leading them to eat more.

The FDA estimates that the changes to the nutrition label will result in over $30 billion in benefits. However, that figure is based on a miscalculation:

  • The agency based its $30 billion in benefits solely on the amount of changes that it made to the food label, not based on the type of changes. When the nutrition label rules were issued in 1994, the rule changed 100 percent of the label content. Because the current proposed rule rearranges 33 percent of the current nutrition facts label, the FDA extrapolated that the proposal would yield 33 percent of the value estimated in the 1994 label change.
  • That logic, Abdukadirov writes, makes no sense. Were the FDA correct, he explains, then according to its method, if the FDA simply replaced the label with a picture of monkeys, that 100 percent change would triple the rule's benefits.

Were the FDA to redesign its label more effectively, the changes might have actually have a positive impact on public health, says Abdukadirov.  But with such poor analysis, the rule will likely do little to achieve such a goal.

Source: Sherzod Abdukadirov, "The FDA's Food Label Flaws," U.S. News and World Report, May 19, 2014. 

 

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