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With Stars and Numbers, Who Needs Menu Labels?

With Stars and Numbers, Who Needs Menu Labels?

The Food and Drug Administration has begun finalizing regulations to implement the menu labeling law passed by Congress as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The agency has stated that it intends to have actionable rules in place by the end of this year.

The food industry weighed in during the comment period through organizations that included the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association. FMI is opposed to regulation, arguing that FDA is in danger of implementing “an overly broad interpretation of the language found in the original legislation.” The NRA, which describes itself as a “primary advocate” for the law, is eager to see federal rules that supersede myriad state and local regulations.

Despite the law's good intentions, a small but compelling body of evidence suggests menu labels are not as effective as one might imagine. The FDA itself cites studies suggesting that the concept of “calories” lacks relevance for consumers, particularly at the time of purchase and consumption, when menu labeling would be most effective.

Researchers have looked at New York City — which has mandated menu labeling since 2008 — and college cafeterias with labeling programs, and found little change in purchase behaviors. A separate study released late last year by the International Food Information Council showed that more than half of Americans don't even monitor calories.

A more recent poll from Mintel found that 81% of respondents like to use “tools” to make healthful food decisions — yet only 41% rely on menu calorie counts to accomplish this.

For the past five years, the supermarket industry has been building its own versions of menu labeling. One of the better-known programs is known as Guiding Stars; another is called NuVal. These systems take into account calories, as well as fat, sodium, carbs and numerous other nutrients that are all crunched together in sophisticated algorithms and ranked for the customer at the point of sale using easy-to-comprehend stars (in the case of Guiding Stars) or numbers (NuVal).

These science-based, unbiased programs have made steady progress penetrating every category and can be found in produce, meat, grocery, deli and meals. The standards do not vary from department to department. Customers are presented with a single, storewide ranking system that performs all the math for them. It's about as convenient and simple as nutrition could ever be.

Asking supermarkets to post calorie information separately just to satisfy the law is not only redundant, it's not worth the effort. Outside of the deli/meals area, there are too few food items in supermarkets that would be affected by the legislation. The law carries the potential to confuse shoppers at a time when more holistic nutrition rating programs are gaining critical mass in the aisles. The FDA should limit the scope of the menu labeling law to those venues that actually have menus.