Processed Foods’ New Clothes

By Betsy Keller, MS, RD

New front of package nutrition labeling – The Nutrition Keys- created by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) will soon be on food labels at your local grocery store.  The plan announced Monday will display four icons on the front of the package that reveal calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars. Oh by the way, make sure you bring your calculator with you.

Food industry spokespeople claim the new labeling was created in response to Michele Obama’s request for “clear, consistent” labels to help consumers make better food choices.  However, the response from leading nutrition authorities and consumer watch dog groups apparently consider this a flagrant attempt by the food industry to pre-empt a potentially pejorative labeling program in the works by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Food industry’s fear – required  labeling of negative attributes of a food product (high fat, high cholesterol ) that a consumer would want to avoid rather than positively highlighting nutrients they have added to processed foods such as vitamins, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.  The concept seems like phase two of the similar “Smart Choices” labeling introduced two years ago, but then abandoned as the labels made foods such as sugar cereals look like a healthy choice?

Buying Blind

So you have read Michal Pollan’s Food Rules, you read the Tuesday science section in the New York Times and you vaguely remember a food pyramid suggesting to add more fruits and veggies to your diet.  As an educated consumer, which food below would you select for breakfast based on the new labeling? 110 calories, no saturated fat and 11 grams of sugar (which would equate to 3 teaspoons of sugar) or 100 calories, no saturated fat and 14 grams of sugar ?

Calories          Sat Fat            Sodium (mg)   Sugars (grams)

110                  0                      140                              11

100                  0                      85                                14

When you don’t read the ingredient label, there is no context to provide insight into where the nutrients are coming from.  Did you choose the frosted flakes over the light yogurt because it had less sugar?  Thought so.  The Nutrition Key label on fresh dates might convince a shopper to opt for double stuffed cookies.

Suggestions Please

Michael F. Jacobson, Executive Director of Center for Science in the Public Interest cleverly suggests a stoplight theme with green, yellow and red dots to indicate whether a food has a good, fair or poor nutritional quality

David Katz, MD, Chair of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, has introduced the  NuVal™ Scoring system.  Nu Val summarizes comprehensive nutritional information in one simple number between 1 and 100.  It considers 30-plus nutrients and nutrition factors – the good (protein, calcium, vitamins) and the not-so-good (sugar, sodium, cholesterol).  Nu Val is expanding and may be at your market soon

What Can You Do?

Until the FDA, GMA, FMI and all the other food industry acronyms can agree and mandate honest helpful labeling that really makes sense, read the ingredients panel. While knowing how many grams of saturated fat and teaspoons of sugar (will need a calculator for this) are important, it is far more informative to know where those fat and sugar grams came from.  Did they process the bread’s flour and lose the fiber, vitamins and minerals and then somewhere in the manufacturing process add those nutrients back in?  100% whole wheat bread contains 100% whole wheat flour as listed in the ingredient panel….now that is quick and simple. Let common sense prevail.

Betsy Keller, MS, RD is a nutrition marketing and communications consultant specializing in sustainable food, nutrition and health-related issues. She is a freelance writer and also lectures in Fairfield County, CT.

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