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Can Better Labels Lead to Better Nutrition?

February 8, 2010

The New York Times on Sunday reported on a package of proposals by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the way Americans receive nutrition information. In an effort to fight obesity, the FDA is proposing to reevaluate the official serving sizes listed on packaged foods and to move the labels to the front of the package.

The theory behind these changes is that more accurate, more prominent nutritional information will better inform consumers about the calorie content, etc. of the foods they consume. This information, in turn, will create a “greater sense of public caution about unhealthy foods” and help consumers make better choices.

However, it is unclear whether more information actually helps consumers make better choices. Although calorie labeling had been mandatory fast food outlets in New York City for several years, it is unclear whether it has actually reduced the amount of calories that people consume. A study by researchers from Stanford show it does; research by Wagner’s Rogan Kersh shows it doesn’t.

Moreover, the FDA’s focus on providing more accurate, more visible nutritional information may exacerbate the current trend toward more processed, heavily fortified foods.  Many writers, Michael Pollan among them, have questioned whether such a diet is preferable, from either an environmental or a health perspective.

If the FDA’s labeling changes work, we may be a skinnier nation, but perhaps not a healthier one.

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