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It's time to upgrade outdated food labels

A new bill would make for clearer labels and shine a light on marketing claims

Published: October 2013
Is that label giving you all the important nutritional information you want and need?

Food manufacturers like to splash eye-catching claims on packages to entice you at the supermarket: “Natural!” “Whole Grain!” “Healthy!”

But do these terms actually mean anything? And when you look at the nutritional label on packages, are you really getting all the information you need to make smart food choices?

Three lawmakers thinks the answer to both questions is an emphatic “no.” You deserve better labels to better compare products, they say, so they’ve introduced the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013 to update and strengthen food-labeling requirements. (This would be the first update to the food-labeling section of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act since 1990. Some sections of this law haven’t been updated since 1938.)

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, recently joined the trio—Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)—at a press conference in support of the legislation.

The bill would order the Food and Drug Administration to create a standardized system for labels on food packaging. The goal is to make it easier for you to compare the nutritional information of one product to another. 

The bill would also require the FDA to update guidelines and definitions for marketing claims that can be misleading, such as labeling a product “natural” or “healthy.” These terms aren’t defined for most foods, and vague marketing could lead you to think that you’re getting a product that’s far different from what the label suggests. The August 2013 Consumer Reports article "Making Sense of Food Labels" explored the confusing nature of many of today’s food-label claims. 

One item in the bill that we particularly like would disclose the caffeine level in a product if it exceeds 10 milligrams per serving. Today, even when caffeine is listed as an ingredient, you might not know exactly how much you’re consuming. This lack of detail is a serious concern when it comes to highly caffeinated products such as energy drinks, which are often marketed to teens and younger kids.

A December 2012 Consumer Reports investigation looked at caffeine levels in 27 top-selling energy drinks and shots. Five of the 16 products listing a specific amount of caffeine exceeded that level by 20 percent in the tested samples.

Such cases help to make the case for better information that would help you make smart choices for yourself and your family.

This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

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