Biden administration to explore voluntary targets for added sugar, develop front-of-pack nutrition labeling system

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image credit: GettyImages-kali9
Image credit: GettyImages-kali9

Related tags: White House, White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, National Strategy, hunger, food labeling

The Biden administration is exploring steps the federal government could take to reduce intake of added sugars “such as developing targets for categories of foods, similar to the voluntary targets FDA developed for sodium,” as part of a National Strategy released this morning ahead of tomorrow’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.

The 44-page strategy document​ contains a mixture of plans that can be enacted by the federal government, calls to action to private companies and state legislatures, and promises to “work with Congress” ​to ensure that various schemes are properly resourced.

We have outlined some of the areas below that may directly impact consumer packaged goods companies, but the report also contains several general admonitions to private companies to help consumers make healthier choices, although these have no legislative teeth, such as:

  • “Online grocery companies should redesign their search algorithms to ensure healthier products appear first.”
  • The food industry should increase the availability of and access to foods that are low in sodium and added sugars…"
  • “Food retailers should hire RDNs to help provide nutrition information to consumers, redesign stores to more prominently place healthier choices, market and stock healthier items, and establish buying programs with local farms."

The strategy document includes plans to:

Facilitate lowering added sugar consumption​. “HHS FDA will begin assessing the evidence base for further strategies to reduce added sugar consumption, collaborating with other HHS divisions and USDA to hold a public meeting regarding future steps the federal government could take to reduce intake of added sugars such as developing targets for categories of foods, similar to the voluntary targets FDA developed for sodium.”

Develop a front-of-package (FOP) labeling system​: This would “quickly and easily communicate nutrition information.” ​The White House notes that “FOP labeling systems—such as star ratings or traffic light schemes—can promote equitable access to nutrition information and healthier choices and could also prompt industry to reformulate foods to be healthier. HHS FDA will conduct research and propose developing a standardized FOP labeling system for food packages to help consumers, particularly those with lower nutrition literacy, quickly and easily identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern.”

Provide nutrition info for online shoppers​: “Facilitate making nutrition information easily available when grocery shopping online… HHS FDA will publish a request for information to gather public input regarding industry practices, technology, and current challenges to inform guidance for the food industry on nutrition, ingredient, and allergen information that should be available for groceries sold online.

Issue stricter voluntary sodium targets​: “In 2021, HHS FDA issued voluntary, short-term (2.5-year) sodium reduction targets​ across packaged foods… HHS FDA will issue revised, voluntary sodium reduction targets to facilitate continually lowering the amount of sodium in the food supply beyond the 2021 targets.” ​USDA will also update nutrition criteria in USDA Foods procurement specifications to align with the stricter sodium targets and “consider the inclusion of added sugars limits.”​ 

Update regs permitting salt substitutes in standardized foods​: HHS FDA will propose to update regulations to enable manufacturers to use salt substitutes in standardized foods to support sodium reduction. VA will also increase procurement of lower-sodium foods.

Make sure that foods labeled as ‘healthy’ align with current nutritionscience​: “[As previously announced] HHS FDA will propose updating the nutrition standards for when companies use the "healthy” claim on their products and develop a symbol companies may use to depict the ‘healthy’ claim on food packages." A​ proposed rule​ has already been completed, but a publication date has not yet been released.  HHS FDA will also "develop guidance for industry on the use of Dietary Guidance Statements on food labels to help people understand how a food or food group can contribute to a healthy eating pattern.”

Address the marketing of unhealthy foods​: “The DoD will limit marketing in military dining facilities to those that meet its Go 4 Green program nutrition standards… The FTC has indicated that it will pursue targeted law enforcement actions to prevent the deceptive advertising of foods and dietary supplements, including deceptive advertising that might be targeted to youth.”

Adequately fund the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) to prioritize nutrition and labeling work​. “HHS FDA’s CFSAN nutrition work has historically been underfunded in comparison to other priority areas​,” says the document. “To date, only 7% of CFSAN’s budget supports nutrition and labeling work, yet CFSAN is responsible for the safety and labeling of approximately 80% of the U.S. food supply. The Biden-Harris Administration will work with Congress to ensure CFSAN has the resources it needs to accomplish its critical work.”

Expand incentives for fruits and vegetables in SNAP​. “Incentives in SNAP to support purchasing more fruits and vegetables have been pilot tested and shown to be effective in Massachusetts and through the USDA Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program. To increase access to fruits and vegetables for SNAP recipients, the Biden-Harris Administration will work with Congress to increase the reach and impact of incentives for fruits and vegetables in SNAP.​”

Marion Nestle: Strategy hits the right notes, but execution could be a challenge without Congressional action, resourcing

Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University, told FoodNavigator-USA that she was encouraged by many aspects of the document although worries about how much the administration can actually achieve without congressional or agency action, which “could be a hard slog​.”

"It’s strong on ending hunger and this section is well thought out.  But I don’t see anything about a national need to reduce or prevent weight-related chronic disease, still the leading causes of death and disability in the US (heart disease, cancer, stroke, Covid-19)—except for Medicaid recipients. 

“Most suggestions are to improve the food choices of individuals, not policy.  It mentions marketing of unhealthy foods, but in a limited context.

“In any case, all of this is talk.  The big question is where is the action?  The things it says ‘The Biden-Harris Administration will do’ are terrific and will make a big difference.  But the report is also full of statements along the lines of ‘The Biden-Harris Administration will continue…, will pursue.., is committed to.’  These require congressional or agency action that could be a hard slog. 

“But as an overall statement of what needs to be done, it’s better than I expected and I hope it inspires the kind of action that is needed.”

CBA urges 'incentive-based' and 'voluntary initiatives'

Trade association the Consumer Brands Association welcomed the strategy, but said it would "urge against implementing policies that may inadvertently hurt consumers, especially in the volatile economic environment that has caused a spike in the cost to manufacture grocery products."

Sarah Gallo, vice president of product policy, did not spell out what specific policies outlined in the document could "hurt consumers,​" but added that, "Focusing on incentive-based and voluntary initiatives, such as voluntary interpretive front-of-pack labeling schemes that are fully backed by extensive research, has the potential to positively affect our shared hunger, nutrition and health policy goals."

CSPI: 'Thrilled' with FOP labeling proposal

Washington DC based health advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said it was "thrilled" that the White House had decided to look again at 'at-a-glance' front-of-pack nutrition labeling.

"Front-of-package nutrition labeling will reach more consumers than Nutrition Facts labels, will help them choose healthier foods at a glance, and will spur companies to reformulate products in a more healthful direction.

"Americans are generally consuming too much sodium, added sugars, and saturated fat in their packaged foods, so to be able to quickly identify foods that are high or low in those nutrients would be a huge public health advance. As one of the organizations that has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration​ to adopt mandatory, standardized, and evidence-based front-of-package labeling, we are thrilled that this policy is at the center of the strategy."

RDN: 'It’s the combination of foods that makes for a ‘healthy’ diet'

Asked about the merits of an ‘at-a-glance’ front of pack labeling scheme and a ‘healthy’ logo on pack, Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com, and author of Read It Before You Eat It - Taking You from Label to Table​, told us that, “I’m not a fan of labeling food as good (green) or bad (red), as with a traffic light system.

“A ‘bad’ diet is not labeled as such because you eat ice cream or an occasional cookie — it’s the combination and quantities of these foods that counts. I can appreciate highlighting items like added sugar, sodium and calories on the front of the package, but with our rushed schedules, I’d be concerned that a ‘healthy’ icon on the front of the package will keep people from slipping that package over to read the ingredient list and see what else in in the food they’re purchasing.”

She added: “Although ‘healthy’ is a term we easily attribute to so many foods, it is not really a term that is easy to define because our diets are not made up of individual foods — it’s the combination of foods that makes for a ‘healthy’ diet. Looking at an individual food and slapping an icon on there that says healthy is like expecting one instrument to play the music of an orchestra.”

Read the National Strategy document HERE​.

More to follow...

Facts-up-Front-labels

Front of pack labeling

In a 2011 report, the Institute of Medicine​​​ argued that front-of-pack schemes should interpret nutrition information for consumers at a glance, and recommended listing calories per serving as well as a rating of zero to three 'nutritional points' based on levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars.

While this was welcomed by some health advocacy groups, it was also criticized for only taking 'bad' nutrients into account, rather than a product's overall nutrient density.

The industry-backed Facts Up Front​​​ program, meanwhile, spells out calories, sat fat, sodium and sugar per serving, and gives manufacturers the option to mention two ‘nutrients to encourage,’ but does not rate or ‘rank’ products with colors, stars or numbers/scores.

It does not - unlike some competing front-of-pack labels - attempt to guide shoppers towards ‘healthier’ products or rank foods, but instead highlights key data from the Nutrition Facts panel to help consumers make informed choices.

NuVal-logo

NuVal... phased out

The NuVal​ shelf tag program – which assigned products a score of 1-100 based on their nutritional value – has been phased out. 

NuVal – which at its peak featured in 1,600+ stores​​​ in 31 states including Tops Friendly Marks in New York, Raley’s in California and Big Y in Massachusetts – factored in positive nutritional attributes as well as negative ones, with nutrients with generally favorable effects on health (eg. vitamins) increasing the score, while nutrients with generally unfavorable effects (trans fat, excess sodium) decreasing the score.

As with any system attempting to apply a standardized approach to thousands of foods across multiple categories, however, it threw up some strange results (read more here at USA Today​​​ and Yale Daily News​​​), and attracted criticism from some big CPG brands​​​ and the National Consumers League (NCL)​​​ due to its refusal to publish the algorithms underpinning its scores.

According to its website​​, ​​it is now focused on the NuVal attributes program, which guides consumers to foods and beverages with specific attributes such as gluten-free, organic or low sodium, but does not ascribe a score/points to individual products. 

Traffic lights...

traffic lights

While color-based systems are seen as more consumer-friendly by some, they have also proved controversial if they fail to take portion sizes into account and because they tend to focus on negatives (fat, salt, sugar) rather than positive nutrition (fiber, vitamins).

For example, under the ‘traffic light’ system adopted by many firms in the UK,​ nutrient-rich but salty products such as cheese or savory spreads feature red traffic lights for sodium because they contain a lot of sodium per 100g, despite the fact that per serving, they might be lower in salt than products featuring green traffic lights.

Traffic light systems have also been criticized for awarding multiple green dots to products seen as having little nutritional value such as diet colas, which might quench thirst but do not deliver much positive nutrition.

Related topics: Industry Voices

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