FDA Eyes Nutritional Claims On Packages

The Food and Drug Administration says it will investigation nutritional claims made on food packages. The FDA says it wants to see if the claims violate federal food labeling rules.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in California.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris in Washington, D.C.

And we could call this the Eat Your Peas segment, or at least that part of the program where we hear about federal efforts to promote healthier eating. In a moment, we'll hear from the White House and first lady Michelle Obama's latest initiative.

BLOCK: First, help for grocery shopping. With so many products advertised as healthy, it can be confusing. This week, the FDA promised a little clarity, as NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

(Soundbite of grocery carts and scanner)

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Walk the aisles of any supermarket these days and you're bound to see more and more products with brightly colored checkmarks, symbols and messages touting the food's healthfulness. Messages like: Heart Healthy, Smart Choices and Better for You. But exactly how true are these messages? According to Michael Jacobson, who directs the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, some are not true at all.

Dr. MICHAEL JACOBSON (Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Some breakfast cereals and other foods have huge claims about immunity, pretending that those foods, because they have a smidgen of added vitamins or minerals, can protect you against colds or whatever. It's phony. It's just a lie. The FDA has let companies get away with that.

NEIGHMOND: But by next year, the Food and Drug Administration will put in place a program to change that. Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg has announced the agency will scrutinize such claims and consider setting government criteria for how and when companies can advertise a product's nutritious value. Hamburg points to Great Britain where the government sets standards for how products rate, in the amount of salt, saturated fat, sugar and total calories they contain. Products receive red, yellow or green circles indicating whether they have high, moderate or low amounts of these ingredients.

Dr. MARGARET HAMBURG (Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration): Consumers really like this approach and it enables them to make informed choices. It doesn't mean that consumers only buy the products that are green. They sometimes, you know, knowingly buy the red, but perhaps end up with a better balance overall.

NEIGHMOND: Hamburg says such labels could be voluntary, but doesn't rule out making them mandatory similar to the nutrition fact labels typically found on the back or side of food packages. That would please Jacobson, who says companies shouldn't be allowed to opt out.

Dr. JACOBSON: There's a nutrition facts label on almost every food in the supermarket. That should be accompanied by this simplified nutrition number colored dot just to help people shop more wisely.

NEIGHMOND: Mike Hughes represents the Smart Choices Program, a nutritional labeling campaign developed by large food companies. Smart Choices is one of the programs the FDA's Hamburg criticized as misleading and not wholly accurate. Hughes says that's all wrong.

Mr. MIKE HUGHES (Chairman, Smart Choices Program): These decisions are not rooted in some image that a product has, but are rooted in science.

NEIGHMOND: And even when it comes to foods of historically questionable nutritional value, which are labeled Smart Choices, Hughes says they've been reformulated.

Mr. HUGHES: The Froot Loops that's on the shelf today, with the Smart Choices Program logo, has more fiber and less sugar than it did before.

NEIGHMOND: Even so, FDA officials will soon begin researching the validity of current company claims on food packages.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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