Can Food Labeling Guide Healthy Decisions?

New standards for food labeling will emerge from the FDA sometime next month. This will be the first change since the nutrition facts label format was introduced 21 years ago. But before that can happen, the White House Office of Management and Budget must review them. Does that help your confidence that an evidence-based proposal will come out at the other end?

In a recent New York Times essay, Gary Taubes doesn’t sound too sure that we know what we’re doing. He says:

As it is, we have a field of sort-of-science in which hypotheses are treated as facts because they’re too hard or expensive to test, and there are so many hypotheses that what journalists like to call “leading authorities” disagree with one another daily.

It’s an unacceptable situation. Obesity and diabetes are epidemic, and yet the only relevant fact on which relatively unambiguous data exist to support a consensus is that most of us are surely eating too much of something.

On a more optimistic note, researchers just published a new study of the potential for traffic light labels (green=healthy, yellow=less healthy, red=unhealthy) and other nudges to promote better long-term dietary choices in a hospital cafeteria. They examined overall purchase patterns and also studied the individual purchases of a cohort of 2,285 employees over a period of two years. They found that the labels and the nudges indeed produced sustained healthier choices. The study appears in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The devil is always in the details when we get down to defining healthier choices. The uncertainty that Taubes bemoans, combined with pushback from the food industry, will make for an interesting spectacle.

Watch this space when FDA’s new standards for food labeling come into the light of day.

Click here to read more about the new food labeling standards in Bloomberg, click here to read the Taubes essay, and click here to read the study in AJPM.

Moon Lake Sweet Corn, photograph © Frank DeFreitas / flickr

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