Last week a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that obesity is set to overtake tobacco as the leading cause of preventable deaths. Poor diet and inactivity caused an estimated 400,000 deaths in 2000 and CDC estimates that 64 per cent of all Americans are overweight, including more than 30 per cent who are considered obese.
Following a new report by the FDA's obesity working group, HHS secretary Tommy Thompson said the department wanted to encourage consumers to count calories so that they 'take small steps to eat a more balanced diet'.
This could lead to the authorization of health claims on foods defined as 'reduced' or 'low' calorie, such as the claim: 'Diets low in calories may reduce the risk of obesity, which is associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers'. Such a move, which would require public notice of rulemaking, would however swell the number of products being marketed as 'healthy' foods, reducing the advantage offered by a health claim.
The group also recommended strengthening coordinated scientific research to reduce obesity and to develop foods that are healthier and low in calories. This could look into incentives for product reformulation.
In addition there is a need to encourage the restaurant industry to launch a national, voluntary effort to include nutritional information for consumers at the point of sale and to increase FDA's focus on enforcing accurate serving size declarations on food labels.
But the Center for Science in the Public Interest says that the 'small steps' proposed by FDA's obesity working group on Friday are not enough.
"We should be getting junk food out of schools in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables. Requiring (not just recommending) calorie counts on fast-food menu boards. Funding real, hard-hitting education campaigns and not public service announcements that will hardly ever air," said executive director Michael Jacobsen.
The full report from the FDA's obesity working group is available on the website.