Obesity epidemic goes beyond label (commentary)

Obesity epidemic goes beyond label (commentary)

AS Feedstuffs readers know well, the food world can sometimes be nonsensical. Those in the business have witnessed many irrational complaints, worries and policies surrounding agriculture and food over the years.

As such, nothing ever seems really shocking, but every once in a while, something comes down the pike that simply defies logic, especially when it comes to the nation's ever-present obesity problem.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) indicates that nearly two out of three adults are overweight. Moreover, while the rate may be slowing, according to CDC, nearly 36% of all adults are categorized as obese, which is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of greater than 30. More troubling, 17% of the nation's youth also fall into that category.

As CDC explains, "Obesity increases the risk of a number of health conditions, including hypertension, adverse lipid concentrations and type 2 diabetes."

That consideration makes obesity a matter of public health, not simply an individual problem. Furthermore, obesity often leads to reduced productivity, increased disability claims and other associated costs.

At this point, a little background is useful. The Nutrition Labeling & Education Act (NLEA) became law in 1993, stemming from reports by the Surgeon General and the National Research Council (1988 and 1989, respectively). NLEA was enacted on the premise that food labels during the late-1980s were insufficient in guiding consumers and that better information would allow them to become more informed and aware of what they were eating. That seemed logical as calorie information is the item consumers report most closely monitoring.

Good intentions are one thing, though; real outcomes are another. Obviously, NLEA has failed.

CDC reported, "In 1990, among states participating in the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, ... no state had (obesity) prevalence equal to or greater than 15%. ... In 2010, no state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%."

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to reverse that trend.

Therein enters the Food & Drug Administration. The agency recently released new proposed guidelines to the Nutrition Facts Label found on purchased food products. FDA explained that such a proposal is required because:

A lot has changed in the American diet since the Nutrition Facts label was introduced in 1993 to provide important nutritional information on food packages. People are eating larger sizes. Rates of obesity, heart disease and stroke remain high. More is known about the relationship between nutrients and the risk of chronic disease. So, FDA proposes to bring this familiar, rectangular box — which has become one of the most recognized graphics in the world — up to date with changes to its design and content.

What's different? FDA's list topper is calories: "The first thing consumers would notice is a greater emphasis — with larger and bolder type — on calories."

One article justified the proposed changes as FDA's attempt to create a more competitive landscape in which calories are differentiated in the marketplace. All that is despite the fact that consumer research repeatedly reveals that calorie labels don't really alter our behavior. Twenty years of mandatory labels have done nothing to stem mounting obesity in the U.S.

That reminds me of some comments I wrote several years ago about NBC's hit show, "The Biggest Loser," when I noted that one of its key components is an emphasis on the complexity of issues surrounding weight gain and obesity. After all, if it were simple, there'd be no show.

The show is all about changing behavior — a wide variety of contributors that lead to a lifetime of weight gain. At the end, many participants realize that doing what you've always done means getting what you've always gotten (or something to that effect).

For whatever reason, FDA believes that simply making it more convenient for consumers to see and read the calorie count will alter purchasing and consuming behavior and  will prove sufficient to alter the current course.

That's no solution. We need to do better. Labels are just a means to an end; the epidemic's complexity goes far beyond font size.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:86 Issue:11

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