The White House has asked the Food and Drug Administration to propose a standardized front-of-packaging food labeling system. It should help consumers "particularly those with lower nutrition literacy" to make quick and healthy decisions, the White House said in a 44-page strategy report.
The move came just ahead of a conference on hunger, nutrition, and health that took place yesterday. This was the first conference of this type since 1969 when major programs like food stamps were initiated during the Nixon years. During the conference, which featured several members of Congress as well as prominent researchers and investors, President Biden announced that he has secured $8 billion from public and private sources to help improve the food and nutrition in the US. “This goal is within our reach — just look at how far we’ve come on child poverty,” Biden said during a morning session.
The move is part of a broader strategy by the White House to "shift our health care system away from just treating disease to preventing it," a senior administration official told reporters. The initiative emphasizes the idea of "food as medicine," in which the diet is considered an integral part of people's health. The approach involves expanding nutrition assistance programs and medically tailored meals, but details are scarce on how this will actually happen.
The White House has its work cut out, not just because such changes would require strong support in Congress, but also because in terms of nutrition, the US lags behind other developed countries. Almost half of US adults have a poor diet and children are faring even worse: 56% have a poor diet (as of 2016). Things have improved slightly in previous decades, but progress is slow.
Nevertheless, in a 44-page report, the White House says it wants to make healthy foods more affordable and accessible for everyone and end hunger and diet-related disease in America in 8 years.
“First, help more Americans access the food that will keep their families nourished and healthy — a lot of food deserts out there,” Biden said. “Second, give folks the option and information they need to make healthy dietary choices. Thirdly, help more Americans be physically active.”
While this obviously needs a lot of change at all levels of food distribution and consumption, something as simple as moving food labels to the front and making them easier to understand could make a significant difference. Things like nutritional ratings or traffic light systems (where green is healthier and red is unhealthier) can make a difference.
Studies have shown that front-of-package (FOP) labels really do help people make (slightly) better nutritional choices, with one such study in the UK finding that "the introduction of FOP nutrition labels led households to reduce the total monthly energy, saturated fats, sugars and salt content of their total shopping basket by 0.1-0.9%." Another analysis that looked at over 100 studies found that color labeling can also encourage people to buy more healthier foods. "[The] traffic light labelling system (TLS), Nutri-Score (NS), nutrient warning (NW), and health warning (HW) were all able to direct consumers towards more healthful purchasing behaviour," the study noted.
The move has been previously implemented in other countries, most notably in Europe, with positive impacts. The move also puts pressure on companies to produce healthier products -- but herein lies the challenge, as pushback from the food industry can be strong, and food lobbying has skewed US nutrition recommendations in the past.
In addition, while the White House can take some short-term steps, it needs congressional support to implement long-term measures. But the effort is more than worth it, said Biden, citing church teachings and sayings on the subject Wednesday.
“If you look at your child and you can’t feed your child, what the hell else matters?” he said, adding, “In America, no child should go to bed hungry. No parent should die of disease that can be prevented.”
For now, the White House plans to expand access to free, healthy school meals for 9 million more children by 2032 and make the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more accessible.
However, Biden says there's much more to come soon.
“I want all of us to take a moment to recognize the significance of what we are about to do,” Biden said. “Something like this hasn’t happened in more than 50 years. Let’s keep the momentum of today going in a new and meaningful, strong way so that we can fully meet this important moment for our children, for our community and for our country.”