The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced plans to introduce front-of-package labels on food packages.

The goal is to provide shoppers with improved access to nutrition information, according to a regulatory filing by the agency.

By empowering consumers with nutrition information, the FDA aims to help them easily identify healthier food choices and encourage the food industry to innovate in producing healthier options.

The agency intends to implement new regulations on labels by December 2023.

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Front-of-package labels to complement existing nutrition facts labels

The FDA clarified that the new front-of-package labels would complement traditional nutrition facts labels rather than replace them.

The purpose is to assist individuals with limited nutritional knowledge in identifying foods that contribute to a healthy eating pattern. In a statement released on 14 June, the FDA emphasised the need for clear nutrition information at a glance.

Lack of nutritional knowledge hinders understanding

According to experts, most people lack sufficient nutritional knowledge to obtain the information they need from nutrition facts labels easily.

Natalie Mokari, a dietitian based in Charlotte, North Carolina, highlighted that while people are familiar with calorie content, they struggle with understanding important nutrients like fibre and protein.

The complexity of nutrition information further complicates matters, with conflicting and misleading information easily accessible through online searches.

Alice Lichtenstein, a nutrition science and policy professor at Tufts University, stressed the challenges in discerning accurate nutritional value amidst misinformation.

Determining the content of front-of-package labels

The specific details of the front-of-package labels have yet to be determined. However, experts suggest that certain types of information would be more helpful than others.

Mokari cautioned against labelling food as “fat-free” since this might mislead individuals, as fat is an essential macronutrient. Instead, she emphasised the importance of considering protein and fibre content when making healthier choices.

Mokari also highlighted the difficulties individuals with specific health concerns or doctor-prescribed restrictionsface in obtaining detailed micronutrient information about the food they purchase.

Considerations and future testing

Experts like Lichtenstein believe that significant testing is necessary before finalising the system to ensure that different population subgroups interpret the information correctly, particularly regarding varying levels of health literacy.

It is crucial to address the needs and understanding of diverse individuals to ensure the effectiveness of the front-of-package labels.

Balancing nutritional needs in the meantime

While eating patterns are highly individualised, there are ways to balance nutritional needs and desires. One example is the Mediterranean diet, which has been named the best diet for healthy eating for six consecutive years.

This style of eating focuses on simple, plant-based cooking, with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds and extra-virgin olive oil. It minimises the consumption of fats other than olive oil, sugar, and refined foods.

The Mediterranean diet has been associated with various health benefits, including stronger bones, a healthier heart, longevity and reduced risks of diabetes, high cholesterol, dementia, memory loss, depression, and breast cancer.

It also promotes social meals and mindful enjoyment of favourite foods.