Campus & Community

Putting research results on food labels:

4 min read

In Harvard talk, FDA head Mark B. McClellan stresses importance of communicating research

Mark B.
FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan (right) responds to a question while Barry Bloom, dean of the School of Public Health, looks on at a symposium titled ‘Changing the American Diet’ at the Charles Hotel. (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

It’s not enough for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure that foods are safe; the agency should also require food producers to inform consumers about the health benefits of their products, said FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan at a conference titled “Changing the American Diet: Imperatives and Opportunities,” co-sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health and the research firm TIAX LLC.

As the nation’s most important consumer agency, the FDA is responsible for monitoring 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including all foods except meat and poultry, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture.

Evidence shows that Americans are willing to adopt healthier eating habits if they are given scientifically valid, easy-to-understand information, McClellan said in his July 1 keynote address. Food labels should reflect convincing research findings, even if these are not proven beyond doubt in long-term studies.

“We can’t wait patiently for clinical trials that just aren’t being done. Where the evidence is pretty good, we should move forward,” he said.

McClellan’s statement signaled a break with current FDA regulations, which do not permit qualified statements on food labels.

McClellan called for labeling that would allow consumers to assess the health benefits and dangers of various foods in a way that would help them make decisions about how to combine foods in a healthy diet.

As an example of the kind of change that is needed, McClellan said that while it is commonly agreed upon by authorities on nutrition that people should consume at least five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables per day, “there is currently nothing on the label that tells you that consuming more of these foods would improve health.”

McClellan said that the FDA is working with the Federal Trade Commission to increase the focus on health in the food industry. Marketing efforts by food producers now tend to stress features like taste, price, ingredients, ease of preparation, and, in some cases, vitamin and mineral content, but there is little said about the health consequences of eating certain foods. McClellan said he believes the public would respond favorably to such information if it were based on solid scientific evidence.

Providing such information is crucial because of the epidemic of obesity and related health threats such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer that now threaten the American population. McClellan said the medical costs of diseases related to obesity total about $50 billion per year.

“Americans are growing up heavier than ever,” McClellan said.

Almost two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and 5 percent are extremely obese, he said. The obesity epidemic is also affecting children. It has been estimated that 13 percent of children between 6 and 11 are overweight.

“If we don’t do something about this problem, then the next generation may grow up less healthy and threaten the health gains we have made in previous decades.”

Surprisingly, studies show the caloric intake has not changed appreciably over the past 20 years. What has changed during that time is the level of physical activity. Because work generally has become less strenuous and more sedentary and because people are spending more time in their cars and in front of their television sets, caloric intake is no longer balanced by energy expenditure, McClellan said.

As a result, millions are turning to weight control measures that may not be healthy or safe. The solution, McClellan said, is better information and more innovative products for the consumer.

“Technological progress has made it easier for people to get foods that taste better and are easier to prepare, but we clearly need more innovation to help people deal with the hard problem of choosing a diet that is not only easier to prepare and better tasting, but better for their health.”

McClellan also spoke about the FDA’s increased efforts to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply, guarding against accidental microbial contamination as well as against possible terrorist threats.