Nutrition fact labels are confusing. Despite the efforts of the FDA and Congress in enacting the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in the early 1990′s, people are still stumped at the supermarket, and obesity rates are soaring.
Starting in 2004, several food manufacturers, and later grocery chains, decided to create simpler markings on the food packages or shelves. These quick glance labels would help consumers make decisions better and faster. And thus began a Front-of-Package-Nutrition-Label arms race.
In the last 12 months the number of rating systems has more than doubled. A partial list includes SmartSpot, Sensible Solutions, Guiding Stars, Smart Choices, NuVal, Healthy Ideas, nutritionIQ, Nutritional Spotlight, and Healthy Elements.
While in a free market competition is good, what has happened is that consumers are even more confused than they were before. What are these new front of pack labels? What do they mean? Can we rely on them instead of reading the nutrition label on the back of the package? Who’s behind the scores? Are they objective?
A good piece in the Chicago Tribune touches upon some of these issues:
But the new systems are anything but simple. Each is based on different criteria. Some exclude snack foods, candy, ice cream and jams from the ratings. Some try to help consumers find the healthiest food within a category, such as cookies. Others allow comparisons of foods in different supermarket aisles. And while a product might be labeled healthy according to one system, it might receive a low score elsewhere.
What you need to know:
Most of the rating systems were created by food manufacturers or supermarket chains. Don’t forget that their goal is to sell you more food, not less. So take their recommendations with a grain of salt.
We’ve put together a comparison chart that attempts to sort out all the details, like who’s backing which program, where it can be found, and what are the pros and cons.
Hopefully the FDA will step in and create a unified codex, or at the very least help establish some ground rules for creating these nutrition rating labels. Until then, buyer beware.
What to do at the supermarket:
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know the drill.
Be critical of health claims and nutrition markings, do read nutrition labels and ingredient lists.
Try to stay away from danger aisles at the supermarket.
Buy more fruits and vegetables, including frozen. Eat whole grains, low fat meats and dairy. And limit the amount of snacks you pile into the shopping cart.
Help us test our new food comparison tool: alpha.fooducate.com