Industry Front-of-Pack Labeling and “Bad Foods” Come Under Added Scrutiny

June 26, 2011

By Ricardo Carvajal

The New England Journal of Medicine published two articles bound to stoke more controversy in the battle over approaches to countering obesity.  A perspective piece authored by Dr. Kelly Brownell, Director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, Director of the Emory Global Health Institute and former Director of the CDC, argues that industry’s recently announced front-of-pack labeling initiative, Nutrition Keys, is a “unilateral, unscientific, preemptive approach” that should be shelved pending completion of the IOM’s ongoing review (see our prior posting on the first phase of that review).  Prior criticisms in this vein have been cast as “part of a larger attack on commercial speech” and emblematic of “nanny policy preferences.”

In their perspective piece, Drs. Brownell and Koplan make the following observation:

A mantra of the food and beverage industry is that “there is no bad food.” Even if that were true, there still would be better and worse or more healthful and less healthful foods.

That issue is tackled head-on by an article authored by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian et al that reports the findings of a 20-year prospective study of 3 cohorts including 120,877 individuals who were not obese at the study’s outset.  Among the results reported by the authors:

Strong positive associations with weight change were seen for starches, refined grains, and processed foods.  These findings are consistent with those suggested by the results in limited short-term trials: consumption of starches and refined grains may be less satiating, increasing subsequent hunger signals and total caloric intake, as compared with equivalent numbers of calories obtained from less processed, higher-fiber foods that also contain healthy fats and protein.  Consumption of processed foods that are higher in starches, refined grains, fats, and sugars can increase weight gain.

Given its potential economic and policy implications, the study is bound to be carefully dissected and its findings hotly debated over the coming weeks.