Have you noticed the slough of “quick glance” nutrition information we’ve been bombarded with this year? Whether it’s the calorie count on menu items at fast food chains, or on products or shelves at the supermarket, many new nutrition graphics, icons, and slogans have entered our vocabulary in 2009. NuVal, Smart Choices, Traffic Lights, and a host of other front of pack labels stormed into shoppers’ lives this year (some earlier).
But did they help us improve our choices?
That’s the billion dollar question, which unfortunately does not have a simple answer. Hannaford, a grocery retailer that introduced Guiding Stars several years ago, claims that products marked with at least one “star” showed an uptick in sales. The system provides a score of zero, one, two, or three stars to each an every product sold in Hannaford supermarkets, based on its nutritional value.
NuVal, on the other hand, scores products from 0-100, and is currently offering nutrition information in less than 1000 supermarkets, mostly in the midwest. Anecdotal evidence shows that people are slightly improving choices.
In New York, where calorie labeling in fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut went into effect last year, no changes in people’s habits were recorded so far. And in the UK, where the Traffic Light System has been in use for several years on packaged foods, the verdict is mixed. One study, published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the British equivalent of the FDA, showed an improvement in people’s choices. But a recent study by Oxford University researchers showed no correlation between the traffic light symbols and people’s choice of a ready to eat sandwich.
What you need to know:
While the quick glance label may give you quick info, the “information” may not always be in your best nutritional interest. You need to understand that many times the front of pack (FOP) nutrition info is just another marketing tool used by food manufacturers and retailers to get you to think that a product is healthy, when in fact it’s not. The best example is Froot Loops, which received a “Smart Choice” accolade by a consortium of manufacturers and fig-leafs scientists from top universities. This for a cereal with 40% sugar by weight, controversial artificial colors, and trans-fat. Luckily the Smart Choices program was nixed several months after it launched.
There is one very important effect that front of pack nutrition labeling has had though. It has caused food manufacturers to take a look at their products and reformulate them to some extent in order to qualify as many as possible as nutritious. Even Froot Loops lost a bit of sugar and gained a bit of fiber. Granted, these are baby steps, but at least they are in the right direction.
What to do at the supermarket:
Since the front of pack labels have not been approved by the FDA and are not really regulated, there is a lot of wiggle room for manufacturers to sell you a “healthy story” rather than a healthy product.
We recommend that you read the nutrition label itself, along with the ingredient list. It will take another moment of your time, but you will know exactly what you’re getting. And if you need advice or help in choosing a product, Fooducate is always here to help.
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