Proposed Food Labeling Law Would Clarify Use Of “Natural” And “Healthy”

Lawmakers in D.C. have introduced legislation intended to overhaul the marketing and labeling of processed foods — revising everything from the nutrition panel to the ingredients list to the use of terms like “natural” and “healthy.”

The Food Labeling Modernization Act [PDF] was recently introduced in the House by Reps. Frank Pallone (NJ) and Rosa DeLauro (CT). In the Senate, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Ed Markey (MA) submitted the same bill.

First, the Act directs the Secretary for the Dept. of Health and Human Services to create a standard label for the front of a product. The idea is to craft something that clearly displays information about calories, serving sizes, and important nutrients, with the goal that consumers will be able to use this panel to easily compare otherwise similar products.

If a product is labeled as “wheat,” “whole wheat,” “made with whole grain,” or “multigrain,” the label should include information about the actual percentages of wheat and grains are included. Additionally, the use of things like coloring and flavoring (artificial or natural) or added sweeteners must be included.

The HHS Secretary is directed to draft rules for how companies should have to substantiate any purported health claims of the nutrients in their products. The legislation would also lump in trans fats with “fats and saturated fats,” so that a product can’t claim to be “trans-fat free” unless it contains less than one gram of saturated fat.

The bill gives HHS two years to come up with an acceptable definition for how the terms “natural” and “healthy” could be used on food labels. As it stands now, the bill would bar foods from being labeled “healthy” if less than half of its grains are whole grains or if it contains more than 10% the daily value of added sugar per serving.

Both the nutrition panel and ingredients lists would be revised to be more consumer-friendly and realistic.

For example, a serving size would be changed to reflect “an amount that could reasonably be consumed in a single-eating occasion,” which likely means an end to a small bag of M&Ms being listed as two servings. Food packaging would also have to distinguish between sugars and “added sugars.”

There are additional considerations, like a requirement for a statement on any product with more than 10mg of caffeine per serving, and the disclosure of sesame as a possible allergen.

“The measure is a commonsense solution to ‎grocery store shelves that are filled with products labeled with confusing or deceptive dietary information,” says Sen. Blumenthal. “Americans deserve to know what is in the food they eat. By empowering consumers with accurate, truthful, and concise information, this legislation will enable them to make healthier choices, and outsmart deceptive pitches and promotions.”

The legislation is supported by our colleagues at Consumers Union.

“Food labels should inform — not mislead — consumers as they grocery shop,” says William Wallace, CU Policy Analyst. “Consumers deserve labeling that is simple, straightforward, and meaningful, so they can easily compare products and make healthy choices for their families.”

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