In the 1960s, the US government began requiring food manufacturers to include nutrition facts on their labels. Since then, food labeling has become increasingly regulated in order to provide consumers with accurate information about what they’re eating. In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed which required most prepackaged foods sold in America to display nutrition fact panels listing calories, fat, sodium levels and other nutrients. This made it easier for people to compare different products in terms of calories and nutrition content so they could make healthier food choices. To help consumers make better ‘food away from home’ choices, legislation requiring nationwide nutrition and calorie labeling in chain restaurants and other establishments with 20 or more locations was enacted in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act
But Do They Work?
Food labeling and access to nutritional information is here to stay and isn’t going away. In fact, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently made changes to the Nutrition Labeling Act that require manufacturers to provide even more data and information to consumers. Despite all this activity it’s questionable whether these regulations have actually worked.
Unfortunately, a number of studies show that labels have failed to promote even modest dietary improvements. Perhaps most surprising is the failure of calorie labeling. When fast food chains were ordered to post calorie counts, experts expected a drop in calories consumed but research found almost no significant change. Even when minor reduction was spotted, it was not clinically meaningful. Unfortunately, calorie labels appear to have no effect on the patterns of low income people or on adolescents. A survey of all the evidence concludes that calorie labeling does not have the intended effect of decreasing calorie purchasing or consumption.
The effects of the nutrition data box on packaged food also appears to be limited. At first it was widely thought to be successful on the premise that people would use these labels to compare food products. Unfortunately, despite their prominence, Nutrition Fact labels have not delivered the desired effect. There’s evidence that they are ignored by a majority of consumers and they confuse over half of those consumers who do pay attention to the labels. Then when people do choose to eat fewer calories per meal, they end up feeling hungrier faster which causes then to increase their snack intake. The number of average “eating occasions” per day increased from 3½ to 5, and the overall daily consumption of calories increased by 400 despite the information presented.
No one is advocating for abolishing labeling laws but the fly in the ointment is a simple fact: Americans continue to get fatter and unhealthier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are considered overweight or obese – a trend that has been increasing since the 1980s. On average, Americans consume more calories than they need and are not getting enough exercise. Although some wealthier, more educated parts of the US population are becoming more conscious and aware of diet and health issues, huge swaths of the country still consume the standard American diet which is filled with unhealthy foods that lack essential nutrients and vitamins. Oftentimes these are the same people who lead a sedentary lifestyle. These factors contribute to the high rates of obesity, heart disease, and other health problems in the US.