Over the summer, I wrote about the front-of-package labeling that stopped me from buying a product. The Peanut M&M’s in the checkout lane had some useful information on the front — the fact that there were two servings in the package and that each serving had 240 calories. I know there’s no way I would only eat half the package. The negative information about the candy stopped me from buying it.

The Institute of Medicine believes that there are many more people like me who would benefit from this type of information on the front of packages. According to The New York Times, they’ve released a report that says if nutrition information is on the front of packages, it “should focus on the nutrients most responsible for obesity and chronic diseases: calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.”

Up until now, front-of-package labeling has mostly consisted of supposed health benefits, but those claims have come under scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and consumer interest groups. A year ago, the FDA wrote a letter to the food industry, putting them on notice that it would be scrutinizing health claims on the front of packages. The letter led to the voluntary halting of the Smart Choices program. Food manufacturers that didn’t heed the general warning were sent specific warning letters by the FDA. Slowly, health claims on the front-of-package labeling have been changing.

What the Institute of Medicine is proposing, however, isn’t more honest and accurate front-of-packaging health claims. The group suggests that it's not supposed health benefits that should be on the front of a package; it should be those things that can harm health.

I’m having a hard time believing that food manufacturers are going to allow this to happen without a fight. I was surprised when I saw the calorie count on the front of the M&M’s. As helpful as it was to me, I also wondered what marketing genius thought that specific information was going to help to sell M&M’s.

When it comes right down to it, the harmful nutrition information is already on a food package. It’s on the back or the bottom of a package. I’m still of the belief that there should be no front-of-package nutrition labeling at all — even if it did stop me from buying M&M's in the impulse lane at 10 p.m. one night. We’re all perfectly capable of turning a box or a jar around.  

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Putting the bad news on front-of-package labeling
Would calorie, salt and fat facts on the front of a package be helpful to consumers?