What Are Food Labels You Can Trust? Sorting Helpful Claims from Ridiculous Ones on Nutrition Facts Panels & Packages

By Rachael Moeller Gorman, "The Whole-Grain, Reduced-Fat, Zero-Calorie, High-Fiber, Lightly Sweetened TRUTH About Food Labels," September/October 2013

You'll never read a food label or nutrition facts label the same way after you learn what food labels really mean

A Confusing Morass

The newest initiative is front-of-package labeling. It aims to create some kind of standardized system that can be placed on all products to give the consumer a sense of how one product compares nutritionally to another product. The first big push for front-of-package labeling came in 2009, when Kellogg’s partnered with several other major food companies, such as Kraft and Unilever, to create the Smart Choices program. With Smart Choices, a green checkmark adorned “healthy” food packages. But “healthy” was defined solely by the consortium, and after it came out, experts started questioning how nutritious some of the “healthy” foods were. Roberto and others did a study showing that 64 percent of “Smart Choices” did not meet standardized nutrition criteria for a healthy food. After a congresswoman and attorney general called for investigations into the program and by the time Roberto’s study was published, the program had been pulled. It lasted less than a year.

The timing seemed perfect, then, when the FDA swooped in, in 2010, and announced plans to develop a standardized front-of-package label and appointed the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to develop criteria and a design for such a label. But before FDA could issue its own ruling on the matter, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute suddenly implemented their own front-of-pack label in 2011, surprising many. Called Facts Up Front (originally called Nutrition Keys), the label displays nutrition information on the front of a product in a series of tabs, and it is emblazoned on many packaged foods today. The label features four basic nutrient categories: calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. But it also can include up to two “nutrients to encourage.”

“From a public health point of view, it isn’t the best strategy,” said Roberto. “The companies have the ability to cherry-pick nutrients to highlight on foods that may not be so good for you.” Some grocery stores are developing label­ing programs, too, which appear on shelf tags: Hannaford was the first, launching its Guiding Stars system in 2006. And other grocery stores have since followed suit with either their own rating systems or the independent scoring system called NuVal.

“So now you’ve got labels on packaging, companies’ own labels, shelf tags in the super­market. What a mess,” says Roberto.

Next: Cutting Through the Clutter »

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