Posted on February 3, 2011 - by

Nutrition Keys: Full Disclosure in Labeling?

Last week, major U.S. food manufacturers unveiled new, self-imposed labeling requirements for processed foods. The “Nutrition Keys” would be placed on the front of packages, and feature the number of calories, and the amount of saturated fat, sodium and sugars contained in each serving of the product. Manufacturers would also have the option of highlighting additional “nutrients to encourage,” by including two of the following items: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and protein. The changes will be rolled out over the next few months.

The labeling changes were developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute in response to pressure from the F.D. A. and the Obama administration, who wanted more prominent displays of nutrients that consumers may want to avoid. However, in a point of disagreement with the White House, manufacturers also wanted the option to emphasize other potentially beneficial nutrients on the front of the package.

Are these labels truly an advance in clarity for consumers, or simply another method of subterfuge for junk foods? There is concern that drawing attention to the “nutrients to encourage” could make unhealthy foods look healthier, by highlighting the calcium content in ice cream, for instance. Or, manufacturers could be encouraged to add vitamins and unnecessarily fortify products to make them more label-friendly. The label also doesn’t indicate which nutrients are positive and which are negative for your health, so consumers would have to know that beforehand.

Another point of contention is the inclusion of protein under “nutrients to encourage.” Marion Nestle at Food Politics writes, “Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets? We already eat twice the protein we need. The rationale? Vegetarians.  I repeat. Since when don’t vegetarians get enough protein? Never mind, protein makes the products look better.”

If this sounds like a familiar story, that’s probably because it is. Toward the end of 2009, the food manufacturing industry was forced to drop their Smart Choices labeling system after the F.D.A. criticized it for potentially misleading customers into buying processed products over fresh, unprocessed foods. Nutritionists had lambasted the program for being too lax nutritionally, awarding foods like sugar-heavy Fruit Loops and fat-laden mayonnaise the Smart Choice designation.

In the U.K., labels are given a red, yellow or green coding akin to the colors of a traffic light. This allows you to tell at a glance whether the product contains low, medium or high levels of sugar, fat or sodium. So, if the colors are mostly red, then you should enjoy the food once in a while, and if the colors are mostly green, then you can consider the food a healthy choice.

The F.D.A. is considering mandating a similar system for U.S. manufacturers, but the industry is resisting, fearing that the labels will malign food products and drive away business. To which I say, that is the point.

Do you pay attention to nutrition labels? Will these Nutrition Keys will help discourage unhealthy eating habits? What other labeling measures can we use to inform people about what’s in their food?

Feel free to drop a line at crystal@freshthemovie.com.

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