So in the spirit of turning over a new leaf for a new year, we decided to dig into this a little and find out how nutrition labels are made. Warning: we didn't much like what we discovered.
Did you know that just like with blood glucose result accuracy, the FDA also allows a margin of error up to 20% on the calorie counts and other values of packaged foods?
In part that's because the FDA doesn't actually play an active role in creating the nutritional labels for food. Instead, it's left up to each individual company to test their foodstuffs and compile their nutritional facts.
The FDA website states: "FDA does not have the resources to analyze products upon request. However, FDA will collect surveillance samples to monitor the accuracy of nutrition information. The manufacturer, packer or distributor would be advised of any analytical results that are not in compliance. Additionally, depending on circumstances, FDA may initiate regulatory action."
So companies work with a set of guidelines, often assisted by professional testing outfits like Intertek. They're left to self-police, unless they are selected by the FDA to be "audited" for some reason.
But the FDA's inspection and enforcement is "minimal and disorganized," according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). That agency actually released a 60-page report last January titled, "Food Labeling: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Protecting Consumers from False and Misleading Claims." Yikes!!
That report focuses mainly on the misleading nature of health claims (high in fiber! one-third less fat! etc.) Meanwhile, there's pretty much a 1 in 4 chance that the specific numbers on any given nutrition label you're looking at are inaccurate, according to an exposé by the finance blog WalletPop. They note that the number of FDA inspections of food testing facilities is undocumented but clearly declining, and "using the FDA's own data, the GAO found that 24% of tested samples were not accurate. When a company was found to have an erroneous label, the GAO found that the company might have received a warning letter, but that little was documented as to what happened thereafter."
"If something goes unmonitored long enough, problems are going to pop up," said Mark French (quoted in WalletPop), who oversees food testing at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services labs — the leading public food testing operation in the nation.
Although most articles and studies on nutrition labels focus on calories — the primary number Americans track in their food — there's also been public outcry about how carbohydrate claims can mislead consumers. Don't we know it!
Back in 2008, Good Morning America ran an independent test on 12 packaged foods, and found that all of them had at least one component that was higher than what was listed, and three products had underestimated negative components by more than 20%: "David's Sunflower Seeds with 23% more saturated fat, Ritz Crackers with 36% more sodium and Wonderbread with 70% more total fat."
Wow, so while the FDA is ultra-cautious with diabetes technology, they're A-OK with letting manufacturers do pretty much whatever they want with respect to the product labels of food that PWDs — and the rest of the country — eat every day? Food components like trans fat, saturated fat, sodium and even carbs, that could potentially cause health problems for millions of people? Huh...?
It seems the last time food labeling was addressed in legislation was in 1990 with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. So in 2009, the food industry watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued a call for food labeling reform, asking the FDA to:
- Require that all health-related claims be reviewed by the FDA prior to marketing to ensure they are scientifically valid,
- Prohibit claims that a food is low in trans fats, unless the food is also low in saturated fat and cholesterol,
- Require that claims for so-called "Natural" foods meet specific standards, and
- Require that claims such as "made with whole wheat," be permitted only if the product discloses the amount of whole wheat (as percentage of total grain).
The food industry itself has responded with an aggressive new marketing move. It has created an initiative to make the labels easier for shoppers to read and interpret, called "Facts Up Front". This new labeling system features simplified serving sizes and uses big, clear icons to show consumers what's inside. This system is soon to hit supermarket shelves, accompanied by a $50 million promotional blitz.
Note that these bolder labels are easier to read indeed, but there's still no guarantee of the accuracy of information displayed! Where is the additional oversight?
In a story on the drawbacks of this new food labeling system, CSPI director Michael Jacobson noted that creating proper criteria for vetted nutritional standards for consumers like those the Institute of Medicine developed for schools, and getting this approved by the FDA, could take years. "You could be in a nursing home by then," he says. Aaarrrgh!
Bottom line: There's not much we can do in the immediate future to make nutrition labels more accurate, so it's important to keep these shortcomings in mind when you're left wondering why the heck a perfectly carb-counted meal landed you at 287 mg/dl. I'm afraid we PWDs will just have to stay focused on the age-old method of trial and error!