Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Myth: I can use front-of-package labels to make healthier food choices.

Answer: BUSTED! (for now)...

woman comparing food labelsIf you’ve looked closely at food packages recently, you’ve seen that many products now have additional nutrition information on the front. Some food companies have been voluntarily using different nutrition labels on food packages based on different criteria. The lack of a consistent approach leads to confusion and makes it difficult for a consumer to compare products using the labels.

The government has stepped into the fray. The IOM (Institute of Medicine) issued a report last week calling for a standardized point system that would use levels of saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugar to evaluate foods. These front-of-package labels would also include calories. Why only calories, saturated and trans fats, sodium and sugar? They are most closely tied to disease. This labeling would be much like the Energy Star® system that identifies products that meet certain standards.

One system will be used by all companies. It will be a rating system that will interpret the nutrition information of a product using symbols to represent each level of the rating system. These symbols will become easily recognized by consumers after a period of time and will act as a quick reference guide to help consumers compare products and make the best decision. When you consider that the average consumer spends less than 30 seconds making choices in the grocery store you can see that a rating system like the one recommended would be helpful.

What are the drawbacks? The recommended rating system wouldn’t include other information about food like the vitamin, mineral or fiber content. Likely, this information would continue to be available on the Nutrition Facts label found elsewhere on a food package. (FDA is working to update and improve the Nutrition Facts label required on food packages.) Additionally, it is possible that some foods that aren’t “best” choices could get high ratings. As with any system, it would not be perfect.

Don’t expect to see what the IOM has recommended on packages just yet. If such a rating system is approved (rules have to be developed and there is a period of public comment), the system would need to be developed and tested first.

For more information, check out the 4-page brief of the IOM report's recommendations.

Contributor: Ellen Schuster, M.S., R.D., Associate State Specialist, University of Missouri Extension, schusterer@missouri.edu, 573-882-1933

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