3½ Insights from Tufts “Nutrition Label Conference”

The Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy is one of the nation’s foremost leaders in the field of nutrition. They are hosting the 4th annual Friedman Symposium this weekend, a 2 day affair devoted to current affairs in the nutrition and diet arena.

Fooducate was lucky to partake in the conference as an online participant. (thank you Mark Krumm,  Director, Events & Marketing at Tufts, for helping set us up).

Judging from the titles and professional experience of the presenters and lecturers present, the people seated at the Jaharis Conference Center represented a highly capable group. Could some magic happen here that would help put America back on the health track?
Looking at the corporate sponsorship banners hanging on the conference room walls, we began to suspect that the answer would be No.

This morning’s sessions were dedicated to presentation and discussion of Front of Pack Nutrition Labeling systems. It was great to heart the eloquent and vibrant Dr. David Katz kick off with a look into his brainchild ONQI / NuVal.

Next followed Dr. Jeffery Blumberg representing Guiding Stars scheme. Smart Choices was presented by Dr. Doug Ballantine, head of nutrition for Unilever, one of the conglomerate members of the Smart Choices Coalition.

Each of these 3 competing systems is vying for retailer and customer adoption in order to become a de facto standard. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Not any time soon.

What is happening, right now, is more consumer confusion. Here’s why:

NuVal and Guiding stars are shelf labels, while Smart Choices is printed on the food package itself. Which means that a sugary cereal that receives a Smart Choice seal of approval may get a low NuVal score at Hy-vee, or a zero star rating at Hannaford brothers. What’s a shopper to do? Trust Smart Choice? NuVal? None?

Also, many products and manufacturers are not part of any plan. So if you come upon a product that does not have a benchmark, is it because it’s unhealthy, or because it’s not playing the game?

Representing the FDA was Dr. Barbara O. Schneeman, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Nutrition, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration. When we asked why the FDA is not stepping up to the plate and creating a single objective system, Dr. Schneeman responded that  government is slow. She did say that the organization is looking into how consumers are using the existing nutrition labels. Dr. Blumberg added that the experimentation by various groups can help the FDA come to a better decision should it decide to create a uniform front of pack label in the future.

We asked Dr. Ballantine of Unilever if he thinks that Froot Loops is Smart Choices , and if we would recommend it for his children. (Froot Loops has 3 tsp of sugar per serving, several artificial food colors, and trans fat). The response was very diplomatic but totally ignore the question. Here it is more or less:
1. The Smart Choices benchmark is based on scientific nutrition recommendations. However, since there is no scientific consensus regarding the recommended daily consumption of sugar, Smart Choices had to choose for itself.
(Our take: you don’t need to be a scientist to figure out that 3 teaspoons (12 gr) of sugar is not a smart way to get a child to start her day)
2. Regarding artificial food colorings, he once again referred to current science that has not found any negative effects. We guess Europe must be using some other science, otherwise how can one explain the British Food Standards Agency requiring manufacturers remove artificial colors from foods?
3. Dr. Ballantine did not address the trans fat content and the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Our key takeaways:

1. Smart Choices and Guiding Stars cannot be trusted, as they are food industry backed, and you can’t have colliding interests create an objective benchmark. The industry wants to sell more products, not less.

2. NuVal seems like an objective system, but since it is not backed by manufacturers, the label is on supermarket shelves, which requires supermarket cooperation. For many retailers, placing low scores on the shelf may also be scary, as it may deter shoppers from buying more stuff. Hence NuVal’s very modest penetration so far (only 2 regional grocery chains).

3. FDA, oh FDA. Don’t tell us it’s hard to mandate transparency and uniformity from food manufacturers. Together with Congress you managed to pull off the nutrition label almost 20 years ago. Surely you can mandate a front of pack labeling guideline that serves consumers. Do we have to take this up with the big boss? You know, the guy that kept reminding us “Yes we can! yes we can”

3½. If you’re wondering what food is served at breaks in nutrition conferences, here is the menu:
Meals: whole grain breads with assortments of turkey, hummus, all-veggie/vegan sandwiches, lowfat squash curry soup, a chickpea salad, tossed green salad, fresh cut and whole fruits. Sweets: Small brownies and a tasty oatmeal raisin cookie.  Beverages: an assortment of drinks, but focus on water – that’s what most folks select.

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