Current Weather
The Spy FM

Food Industry And Health Experts Face Off Over Package Labeling

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
June 22, 2011

For some of us, the regular trudge to the grocery store is a trial all by itself. But consumers trying to make healthier choices are often left scratching their heads in wonder at the sheer volume of food products with claims about less fat and more whole grain.

When first mom and food maven Michelle Obama called for some clearer guidance last year, the food industry proposed a simple, front-of-package label called Nutrition Keys. It has boxes with information on saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories, plus two optional ones for industry to decide what nutrients they would like to promote — such as potassium or fiber.

But Kelly Brownell, who heads the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, says the industry proposal makes things worse for consumers instead of better.

For starters, the timing of the industry proposal is suspect, he says. “They’ve completely preempted the White House, the Food and Drug Administration, and an Institute of Medicine committee report that are all working on coming up with an ideal front-of-package system.”

In fact, the independent IOM is expected to release its final recommendations this fall. But the industry’s Nutrition Keys program is already under way, and the hope is that it will soon reach 70 percent of packaged foods and beverages in the U.S.

Brownell isn’t sure it will do much good. “If left to its own devices, it’s pretty apparent that the industry will not come up with a system that works for consumers and will help guide healthy food choices,” he says.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association tells Shots that Nutrition Keys is “aligned with the IOM’s 2010 nutrition labeling findings” about which ingredients should be highlighted on packages. The GMA also argues that the results of its own testing show that consumers like the icons in part because they’re simple.

But case in point, Brownell says, is the industry’s previous effort at creating a simple labeling system. It allowed things like Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies to be considered “Smart Choices” because they contain certain vitamins, nevermind the sugar. It was later discontinued after much criticism.

Another problem Brownell notes is that the industry would have a lot of leeway under its proposal to decide what nutrients to include — potentially causing another round of back-and-forth between industry and regulators. And besides that, on one package of Cocoa Krispies he picked up at the store, the Nutrition Keys only took up 1.5 percent of the surface area of the front of the box, he says.

“My guess is that consumers will be lucky if they even notice it, much less make use of it,” he says.

Brownell and Jeffrey Koplan,vice president for Global Health at Emory University, published a perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine today suggesting that so much is at stake on food labeling, the food industry should just wait for the IOM report.

The editorial says more research is needed, and it proposes labels that are simpler, colorful and less numbers driven — like the U.K.’s “traffic light” color-coded symbols.

That way, consumers could figure out with a glance what foods are a go, a go slow, or a stop. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

1PM to 2PM Talk of the Nation

Talk of the Nation

Journalist Neal Conan leads a productive exchange of ideas and opinions on the issues that dominate the news landscape.

Listen Live Now!

2PM to 3PM PRI's The World

PRI's The World

Get a fresh perspective of people, events and trends that shape our world. Host Lisa Mullins covers a wide range of topics, including science, business, technology, sports, art and music.

View the program guide!

3PM to 6PM All Things Considered

All Things Considered

For two hours every weekday, All Things Considered hosts Robert Siegel, Michele Norris and Melissa Block present the program's trademark mix of news, interviews, commentaries, reviews, and offbeat features.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center