Last week the Food and Drug Administration announced two major food policy proposals to amend serving sizes and update the Nutrition Facts panel found on packaged foods. Several other government-industry nutrition communication initiatives have been discussed recently, including school feeding programs, advertising standards for foods targeting children, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and menu calorie labeling in chain restaurants, among others. These are all examples of food policy acting as health policy.
This leads us to ask three questions;
1. How do consumers learn about nutrition? From multiple places on the food label, by comparing products in stores, by viewing media including the Internet, and asking friends and family.
- We are in an increasingly complex market place, due in part to the food industry looking for an edge in marketing.
- The Nutrition Facts label is viewed as “government controlled” and a public health communication tool with high credibility.
- An overhaul of the nutrition label can be empowering for citizens, enabling them, for example, to more easily compare products.
2. Will these new labels help? Clearer and more realistic messages, new evidence from nutrition science and (hopefully) a new series of education efforts to help consumers learn more. But this is only half of the problem –consumers do not have the same food access.
- Consistent messages matter – what a product describes on the front of the package should align with what the consumer can read in the Nutrition Facts and ingredient list.
- Focusing on the individual consumer ignores some of the structural barriers to healthy eating, be they based on physical, economic, cultural/social, time use, and safe access.
3. Why now? Continued concern over obesity, changing dietary patterns (the old Nutrition Facts came out 20 years ago), and different ways of getting information (think smart phones in the grocery aisle).
- We are bombarded with food advertising everywhere, we notice some of it but not all, sometimes we think a lot about our food choices other times not so much.
- Healthy eating includes both awareness and education, supply and demand around a healthy diet and access to healthy foods. While many focus on fruits and vegetables (not covered by these label proposals) these changes apply to packaged food.
- The attention provided by these new label proposals provides an opportunity to energize healthy food access educational programming.
FDA’s new labeling proposals should enhance efforts to increase healthy food access. For example, managers of small stores should find it easier to stock healthy items and encourage customers to make better nutritional choices and groups that focus on healthy cooking and shopping skills for community members will benefit from easier to read labels. But this will require education, attention and adaptation. Current examples of groups trying to do this in Central Ohio include;
Meet the Experts
Dr. Neal Hooker is a Professor of Food Policy in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University. His research explores public policy, marketing and management issues within global food supply chains. He is particularly interested in how safety, nutrition and sustainability attributes are communicated, controlled, and (where appropriate) certified. He studies firm and consumer responses to food policy.
Dr. Jill Clark’s work focuses on local food policy and planning that addresses community public health objectives and the viability of small and mid-size farms. Here in Columbus, she is part of the Fresh Foods Here, a healthy corner store collaborative. Dr. Clark chairs the United Way of Central Ohio’s Nutrition and Fitness Results Committee, which focuses on the ability of Central Ohioans to maintain healthy nutrition and fitness, and she chairs the Franklin County Local Food Council’s policy working group.