Where's The Good Stuff On Food Labels?

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AP / CBS
Kerr Dow says his company, tomato giant Heinz, just wants to tell shoppers the truth: that tomatoes might reduce the risk of some cancers.

"It's a very simple message," Kerr Dow, Vice President of the Heinz Corporation tells CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

But it's not so simple when the FDA gets a hold of it.

The FDA agrees there's promising research, but says any cancer claim on tomato products must carry all kinds of qualifying language, plus this killer disclaimer: "FDA concludes there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim."

"That's the bad news for us, because the messages that are being communicated are very, very complicated," Dow said.

It was supposed to be all good. Food makers fought hard to convince the FDA they have a First Amendment right to tell consumers about promising science even if it's not conclusive. The FDA finally agreed two years ago, but with a catch: it mandates wording that many in the food industry consider convoluted, negative, or ridiculously long.

Walnuts can't just say they may help the heart, they have to include long disclaimers. The wording for olive oil is even longer. Not exactly light reading for shoppers on-the-go.

The FDA's Dr. Barbara Schneeman defends the complex language. She says people must be told the science behind a qualified health claim is emerging, not certain.

"A simple statement wouldn't necessarily give that information to consumers," said Schneeman, the FDA's director for the office of nutritional products, labeling and dietary supplements.

The FDA came up with one idea to streamline the gobblygook: Simple grades for health claims on food. Limited, emerging science would get a "D;" very solid science an "A." But when a food industry group tested the idea on consumers, it bombed out.

"Unfortunately, we discovered in our research, as did FDA, that "D" may have sounded like a bad, poor quality product," said David Schmidt of the International Food Information Council.

The grade idea has been shelved.

And as much as Heinz would like to entice health-conscious consumers to its tomato sauces, the company has decided not to use the FDA-approved cancer claim.

"The language is too long and too complicated for us to be able to put statements like that on our labels," Dow said.

It turns out the idea of foods touting how they could help your health is ripe, but not quite user-friendly.