Obesity: Can Packaging Help?

Legal Briefs

It's no secret people around the world are getting fatter. The causes of obesity are multi-factorial. Food safety agencies like the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) continue their efforts to address diet, health, and agricultural policy.

The new food guide pyramid, available at mypyramid.gov, is a guidance system that highlights food choices for health and emphasizes physical activity. FDA also issued two Advanced Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRMs) this spring seeking comments on changes to the nutrition facts panel that appears on food packages.

One of the ANPRMs proposes to make calories more prominent. The second ANPRM discusses several items, including possible changes to require a product that could reasonably be consumed at one time to be labeled as a single serving.

While policy-makers continue to discuss causes of and responses to obesity, improvements in nutrition labeling, and increasing physical activity, the food industry has focused on developing new products that combine taste, nutrition, and convenience, at an affordable cost, as well as on portion control. The result will be a continuing stream of new opportunities for the converting industry and other packaging producers.

At a workshop on the topic of “Perspectives on Marketing, Self-Regulation, & Childhood Obesity,” held in Washington July 14–15 and sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Health and Human Services (HHS), the agencies heard a wide spectrum of views on responses to the growing problem of obesity. The focus of the workshop was advertising/marketing and the role of self-regulation.

While some activist groups continue to advocate the elimination of “junk food,” or restrictions on advertising and marketing of products for children, many industry panel members described their product innovations and advertising campaigns promoting balanced lifestyles.

Product innovations include reformulations to reduce or eliminate trans-fats, sodium, and sugar, as well as calories, in addition to new portion- control packages. Also described were marketing initiatives to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables and to emphasize physical activity. These changes will affect the packaging industry.

Consumers want a variety of foods that taste good, are convenient, and are reasonably priced. Food companies are responding with new ideas in every category of food products—snacks, main meal, produce, etc.

Single-portion products, often packaged together as multi-packs for convenience, are becoming more popular, especially in the snack category. For example, over the past year several companies have announced new packages of reduced-calorie cookies, crackers, and other snacks, where the total serving involved is just 100 calories. In the ready-to-serve category, containers that can be microwaved or heated in the oven remain popular, with—again—renewed attention being paid to overall calories.

Produce, including fresh-cut produce, has seen remarkable growth over the past few years, although most consumers still fall short of the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Much discussion has centered on how to do more to interest consumers in eating more fruits and vegetables, with a particular focus on children. Special snack sizes of produce products ranging from carrots and celery to stringless sugar snap peas have been popular, and this category is expected to continue to grow.

At the FTC workshop, Nickelodeon announced initiatives with several produce industry partners to feature some of their popular characters on packaged fruits and vegetables, and Sesame Street Workshop is paying attention to nutrition. Kid-friendly and kid-appealing packaging in this category will be attractive to the produce industry.

Obesity is a serious issue, and the food industry and its partners in the packaging industry are meeting the challenge by new food product offerings that assist consumers in managing portion size and packaging innovations to maintain freshness and safety. Packaging can provide new ways to help consumers control their weight, limit portion size, and maintain healthy diets, and this should create new opportunities for converters.

Sheila A. Millar, a partner with Keller and Heckman LLP, counsels both corporate and association clients. Contact her at 202/434-4143; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; packaginglaw.com.

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