Front-of-package labels: A new era of transparency in the food industry?

A survey found that 75% of American consumers are for moving nutrition facts to the front of food packages

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor
Published April 29, 2024 12:45PM (EDT)
Updated May 1, 2024 12:56PM (EDT)
A woman shopping in the dairy section of a supermarket (Getty Images/d3sign)
A woman shopping in the dairy section of a supermarket (Getty Images/d3sign)

Even in supermarkets with the most kaleidoscopic array of items — dozens of cereals, a wall of jams in glass jars, a parade of soup cans — there’s relatively little variation in how those foods are packaged. On the front of a can or box is the main label, containing the product name and maybe some zesty marketing copy, while nutrition information is organized in a standardized panel on the back. However, this hasn’t always been the case. 

Food labeling saw its start in the United States in the early 20th century with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which largely focused on requiring food producers to label their products with accurate ingredients as a way to prevent the sale of adulterated or misbranded food and drugs. In the ensuing decades, standards became stricter; by 1940, federal regulations required food labels to include the name and address of the manufacturer and distributor, in addition to an accurate statement of the ingredients. 

Then, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) was passed, which mandated the inclusion of the standardized Nutrition Facts panel now found on the back of most packaged foods, which provides information about key nutrients like protein, fat, carbohydrates, sugars and cholesterol. 

At the time, experts suggested this measure would provide customers a clearer picture of what they were putting in both their shopping carts and their bodies. “As consumers shop for healthier food, they encounter confusion and frustration,” said Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The grocery store has become a Tower of Babel and consumers need to be linguists, scientists and mind readers to understand the many labels they see.” 

Now, over three decades later, there’s a significant push, and a current bill that’s been introduced, to change nutrition labels once again, this time moving them to the front of the package — a proposition that is gaining traction among public health advocates and lawmakers, while experiencing some pushback from food manufacturers. 

In 2022, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, along with the Association of SNAP Nutrition Education Administrators and the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists, filed a regulatory petition with the FDA, asking the agency to “use its authority to establish a simple, standardized, evidence-based, and mandatory front-of-package labeling system for all packaged foods sold in the United States.” 

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CSPI additionally recommended interpretive front-of-package nutrition labels, which can reportedly further assist customers in making decisions about the foods they are consuming. Similar initiatives have been successfully implemented in other countries; for instance, the United Kingdom has adopted the “Traffic Light” system, which uses red, amber and green color-coding to indicate the calorie, fat, sugar and salt content of different food products at a glance. 

This petition has prompted the FDA to assess different labeling options, which are still under consideration, and in the meantime, lawmakers have entered the fray. 

In late December, U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal introduced The Transparency, Readability, Understandability, Truth, and Helpfulness (TRUTH) in Labeling Act, which also called for interpretive front-of-package labels for foods and beverages sold in the United States. 

“Food companies have led the American people astray for too long. If consumers could see how much sodium, sugar, and saturated fat is in their food, they might think twice about what they are purchasing,” Schakowsky said in a statement. “I am proud to introduce the TRUTH in Labeling Act with Senator Blumenthal. Our bill will create a consumer-friendly nutrition labeling system on the front of food packages. A poor diet is one of the leading causes of preventable disease in the U.S. We must do all we can to create transparency in food labeling and empower consumers to make informed dietary decisions.”

"Standard in many other countries, front-of-package labels help consumers have accurate, interpretive information about the food they buy."

Blumenthal said in a statement that the TRUTH in Labeling Act ensures foods with “high levels of concerning nutrients” are apparent to customers. 

“Standard in many other countries, front-of-package labels help consumers have accurate, interpretive information about the food they buy,” he said. “With prominently displayed salt, sugar, and saturated fat content, consumers will be able to make healthy choices for themselves and their families.”

In an April op-ed for Agri-Pulse, Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association, commended the pushes towards front-of-package labels. 

“Millions of families face real barriers to healthy, affordable foods and beverages,” she wrote. “While it won’t solve all of these challenges, front-of-pack labeling would make it easier and faster for all consumers to make healthier choices, regardless of their income level or neighborhood. An interpretive design that is rooted in science, responsive to consumer needs, easy to understand, and required to appear on all packaged food products would be a potential game-changer for equitable health and could transform the landscape of products we see on shelves.” 

As Brown pointed out in her commentary, some members of the food industry, including the Consumer Brands Association and FMI - The Food Industry Association, have pushed back on specific aspects of  the movement, citing specific concerns about the objectivity of the interpretive labels. 

"The CPG industry is aligned with the goal of enhancing product transparency and aiding consumers in making informed choices," Sarah Gallo, the vice president of product policy at Consumer Brands Association, told Salon in a statement provided via email. "Contrary to the perception that the industry opposes front-of-pack labeling, it has been actively engaged in initiatives to improve nutritional information accessibility for over a decade."

Gallo references Facts Up Front, a voluntary program that presents key nutritional information on the front of packaging, facilitating quick assessment by consumers. Additionally, the industry has introduced SmartLabel, allowing consumers to access detailed nutritional information via QR codes.
"The FDA is currently considering schemes with arbitrary scales and symbols that could cause confusion among consumers and discourage products that contribute to healthy dietary patterns," Gallo said. "The agency should continue its existing collaboration with food and beverage manufacturers and retailers to explore data-driven labels that reinforce important nutrient information, including calories, nutrients to encourage and nutrients to limit."

However, a 2023 national survey found that 75% of U.S. consumers, across multiple demographics, support mandatory front-of-pack labeling — something the government will have to keep in mind as the  TRUTH in Labeling Act, which since its introduction has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Health, is winding its way through the legislative considerations.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Consumer Brands Association. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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