To Buy or Sell: The Universal Food Label Debate

To Buy or Sell: The Universal Food Label Debate

The chairperson of the precisely named Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (Phase II) describes the group's proposed nutrition rating system as “an Energy Star equivalent for food and beverages.” The simple label lists calories per serving, and assigns zero to three points for acceptable levels of trans and saturated fats, sodium and added sugars.

It's interesting to note that the highlighted nutrients are to be minimized or avoided whenever possible. This emphasis on negatives means that a sizable number of processed products on the shelves will not get any rating. The committee cited sugar-sweetened soda as an example; though low in sodium and saturated fats, its sugar content disqualifies the product. The committee expressed hope that ranking foods in this manner would “encourage food and beverage producers to develop healthier fare.”

The food industry has been making strides in this area: Baked snack chips, low-sodium soups and reduced-sugar cereals now crowd the better-for-you category. A recent study by the Hudson Institute found that lesser-evil processed foods account for more than 70% of sales growth, even though they actually comprise less than 40% of total sales.

Statistics like that reflect a strong desire by consumers to buy and enjoy more healthful foods. In January, the industry's largest trade groups introduced their own labeling program that is similar to the Phase II committee's proposal. Facts Up Front lists calories and three nutrients to avoid: fat, sodium and added sugars. But it also includes two additional tabs that can be used to promote beneficial nutrients, such as fiber or vitamins.

The “nutrients to encourage” data on the front of packages is the feature that allows shoppers to make distinctions. They can choose to buy a package of cookies with added fiber over one that doesn't, or a container of orange juice with added potassium instead of regular juice. Those kinds of decisions qualify as “better-for-you” purchases and are a step, albeit a small one, in the nation's campaign for a healthier populace.

Science and common sense dictate that a diet of fresh, whole foods is the ideal, yet the convenience and appeal of processed foods is unavoidable. Whatever front-of-pack labeling scheme is ultimately chosen, the icons, symbols and numbers cannot be used to sell food; they should help consumers buy food. It's a subtle but fundamental difference.

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