These front-of-package labels may "so thoroughly mislead the public that another option deserves consideration - eliminate all nutrition and health claims from the front of processed food packages," Marion Nestle and David Ludwig, two nutrition experts, wrote in the journal.
The agency recently announced it had sent 17 warning letters to food manufacturers asking them to correct misleading labels. The same day, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg issued an open letter to the industry underscoring the importance of reliable food labeling.
"The Obama administration has given the signal that the FDA will be more aggressive in the area of food labeling," said Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which had been discussing the issue with the agency for months and this week released a report called "Food Labeling Chaos: The Case for Reform."
Indeed, last fall Hamburg announced her agency would be taking a closer look, noting that "some nutritionists have questioned whether (label) information is more marketing-oriented than health-oriented."
Though many of the center's labeling concerns remained unaddressed, Silverglade praised the FDA's warning letters, saying he hopes the deceptive food labeling "party is over and we are in a new era."
An FDA study released this week found that, for the first time, more than half of consumers surveyed say they often read labels. But they are also skeptical of industry claims such as "low fat," "high fiber" and "cholesterol free."
Here is a guide to help you navigate the still-confusing food labeling landscape.
The problem: Products are marketed as supportive of the immune system because of the vitamins they contain. It's true that severe vitamin deficiencies can weaken immunity, but such deficiencies are not common in the developed world. Otherwise there's little scientific evidence that vitamins, minerals and specific foods benefit the immune system.
Example: Northfield-based Kraft Foods' Crystal Light Immunity powdered beverage mixes. The front label for Crystal Light Immunity's Natural Cherry Pomegranate drink says "Antioxidants A, C & E help support a healthy immune system."
Critical view: "These vitamins are necessary to stay alive, but adding them to Crystal Light won't lessen your chances of contracting a disease," said the center's Silverglade.
Company response: Responding in the center's recent report, Kraft said: "We do not expect, or claim, that consumption of Crystal Light Immunity … will — in and of itself — significantly impact immune function." Kraft spokeswoman Bridget MacConnell told the Tribune that the firm has "a team of nutritionists and legal experts who carefully review the science and the law before we put any claims on our products."
Possible fix: The center proposes that any immunity claim by a foodmaker get approval from the FDA first.
The problem: Food manufacturers are adding fiber to yogurt, ice cream, drinks and other foods that were previously fiber-free or contained only small amounts. But there's no evidence that the "isolated fibers" being added have the same beneficial effects of naturally occurring dietary fiber. It's generally agreed that oat bran and barley, for instance, lower cholesterol and thus have a cardiovascular benefit. That's not the case with isolated fiber.
Example: Minnesota-based General Mills' Fiber One line of products, which includes yogurt, toaster muffin mixes and breakfast bars. The label on a box of bars boasts that they contain 35 percent of the needed daily amount of fiber. That's because the bars contain inulin, a powdered, isolated fiber derived from chicory root.
Critical view: "The label just says fiber," Silverglade said. "But isolated fibers don't have the same effect."