Obesity, health issues prompt more food labeling

by Laura Lloyd
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WASHINGTON — Food manufacturers have been making health and nutrition-related (H.N.R.) claims for some of their products since 1989, but by 2010 43.1% of foods and beverages carried at least one health claim, such as low fat, high fiber, gluten-free or no trans fat, researchers from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

The article on the growth and significance of such health and nutrition labeling appeared in the July 2013 issue of Amber Waves magazine, published by the E.R.S. The author, Stephen Martinez, described how food manufacturers utilize health and nutrition claims to inform consumers and promote their products in a crowded marketplace.

Mr. Martinez noted that scientific and cultural concerns about obesity intensified after 2001, when the condition was labeled as an epidemic by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Surgeon General. Over the following decade, claims related to calories and sugar were among those health and nutrition claims that increased the most.

Federal dietary guidelines in 2000 and 2005 zeroed in on the “role of soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages in the U.S. obesity problem and the need to limit calories from soft drinks,” he wrote. “From 2001 to 2010, the percentage of sugar-related claims carried by new beverage products accounted for the biggest increase in an H.N.R. claim carried by a single product category, from 25 to 45%.”

The evolution of health and nutrition claims on food items began after Congress passed legislation in the early 1990s requiring nearly all packaged products to carry nutrition facts labels. In the initial 12 years following implementation of the labeling requirements, there was actually a decline in new products carrying health and nutrition-related claims from 34.6% of all products in 1989 to 25.2% in 2001. Included in those declining categories were claims related to cholesterol, sodium, calories, fiber and sweeteners, Mr. Martinez wrote.

But important new knowledge in the new century about what constituted a healthy diet began to influence food manufacturers to reach out with new health and nutrition-related claims, and food companies reacted with more labeling of those benefits in their products.

The dangers of trans fatty acids, or trans fat, was one of the most important new food-related health issues facing American consumers. In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration issued a regulation mandating disclosure of trans fat on nutrition labels by 2006, Mr. Martinez explained.

Food manufacturers responded, often reformulating their products to reduce or eliminate trans fat. By 2010, Mr. Martinez wrote, low-no trans fats ranked as the fifth most popular claim.

“In this case, new food labeling regulations and nutrition education efforts made it easier for consumers to limit their trans fats intake,” he said. “At the same time, food companies had a new platform for showcasing their products.”

Other advances in nutrition education also led to increased use of highlighting health and nutrition in food packaging. The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans of 2000 recommended a daily intake of three or more ounces of whole grains, which led to an increase from 2.3% to 4.5% of all new products carrying a whole grain claim between 2005 to 2010.

More recently, there has been a sharp increase in the number of health claims relating to gluten, Mr. Martinez noted.

“The growth in gluten-free products illustrates the speed at which companies can respond to consumer dietary preferences,” he said. “From 2001 to 2010, the percentage of new products with a ‘no gluten’ claim increased from 1% to 12%, which was the largest percentage-point increase among H.N.R. claims. This occurred despite the challenges presented in reformulating products for the gluten-free market in some food categories. By 2010, ‘no gluten’ ranked second only to claims related to vitamins and minerals.”

With the proliferation of health and nutrition-related claims, E.R.S. researchers were interested in finding out whether grocery items featuring H.N.R. labeling were actually healthier than products without such labeling.

“Food companies have incentives to focus on the positive attributes of their products and downplay the negative,” Mr. Martinez said. “This is particularly troublesome if consumers assume that products with H.N.R. claims are more healthful with respect to nutrients not mentioned in the claim — the so-called halo effect — or associate unproven health benefits with the product.”

Findings were that new products from 2010 with H.N.R. claims contained on average smaller amounts of six nutrients that should be consumed only in moderation, such as cholesterol and sodium, than unlabeled items.

“The analysis suggests that companies did not use the claims to market products that are unhealthier … nor did companies compensate by adding unhealthy nutrients when they reformulated products to qualify for a H.N.R. claim,” Mr. Martinez wrote.

Government policies and buyer demands for foods with a healthier profile suggest the use of health and nutritional-related claims will continue to guide consumers toward healthier choices at the grocery store.

Mr. Martinez noted that “as food companies battle for market share, the health and nutritional features of their products are becoming an increasingly important component of their differentiation strategies.”
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