FTC Staff Weighs in on Food Labels and Obesity

Recommended Label Changes May Help Consumers Choose Lower-Calorie Foods

For Release

In response to a request for public comment by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the staff of the Federal Trade Commission today filed a comment regarding the link between weight management and food labels and packaging. The staff’s comment presents an overview of the FTC’s experience in protecting consumer welfare through encouraging the free flow of truthful and non-misleading information and its particular expertise in weight loss product and food advertising, discusses the importance of health and caloric information on food labels, and provides several suggestions to improve the way the information on the labels is presented. The staff comment discusses how providing accurate health information about foods not only empowers consumers to make better-informed choices about the health consequences of the foods they eat, but also spurs food marketers to develop and market foods based on their nutritional attributes, thus spurring innovation for healthier products. In particular, the staff suggests that FDA consider changing label information to make it easier for consumers to compare the amount of calories in different foods so they can choose more easily those foods that are lower in calories.

In its comment, the staff suggested several ways the FDA’s regulatory scheme for food labeling could be modified to provide better information to consumers about the foods they eatand the relationship between those foods and obesity. Noting that recent empirical research suggests that the serving sizes currently on food labels may significantly understate the amount of particular foods and calories that people typically consume, the comment suggested that the FDA may wish to review whether listed serving sizes still accurately reflect the amount that consumers typically eat. In addition, FDA may wish to consider whether the presentation of serving size information on the label is “sufficiently clear and prominent.”

The comment continued by noting that food labeling regulations “may make it difficult for food marketers to make comparative claims relating to calories” and claims that “compare the calories of foods in different product categories.” Such claims may be particularly helpful to consumers because choosing lower-calorie products, eating smaller portions, or substituting one type of food for another – for example substituting low-fat cherry yogurt for cherry pie for dessert – are important ways for consumers to decrease the amount of calories in their diets.

Specifically, the comment suggested that FDA consider allowing truthful, non-misleading comparative claims, which would require four main changes to facilitate such claims on food labels:

  • Eliminate the requirement that a food must have 25 percent fewer calories than a reference food before a food marketer can claim on the label that it is “reduced calorie” or has “fewer” calories;
  • Remove the prohibition on claims on food labels comparing the calories in foods of different portion sizes;
  • Eliminate the ban on claims on the food label comparing calories of different product types; and
  • Decrease the burden of disclosures that have to accompany comparative claims on food labels.

Further, the comment stated that despite the strength of scientific evidence supporting the link between excess calorie consumption and obesity and related diseases, the FDA has not approved a health claim to permit food marketers to explain this relationship on food labels. Accordingly, the FTC staff suggested that FDA consider taking action to allow this message to be conveyed to consumers.

In concluding the comments, the FTC staff noted, “[We] support the FDA’s efforts to examine its food labeling regulations, policies, and practices to determine whether there are changes that could assist in the government’s efforts to decrease the incidence of obesity and its related diseases among American consumers. We encourage the FDA to consider the possible changes discussed [in this comment] to help consumers identify healthier, lower calorie food and to encourage food companies to develop and market more of these foods. We also suggest thatthe FDA create, solicit, and analyze consumer research as part of its evaluation of the costs and benefits of any changes to the current food label.”

The Commission vote authorizing staff to file the comment in response to the FDA’s request was 5-0.

NOTE: The views expressed in the letter are those of the staff of the FTC’s Bureaus of Consumer Protection and Economics and the Office of Policy Planning, and do not necessarily represent those of the Commission or any individual commissioner.

Copies of the comment to the FDA are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

(FTC File No. V040003)

Contact Information

Media Contact:
Mitchell J. Katz,
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2161
Staff Contact:
Maureen Ohlhausen,
Office of Policy Planning
202-326-2632

Thomas Pahl,
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-2128