Regulating Front-of-Package Nutrition Labels, Part 2 of 3: Developing New Minimum Standards for Complex Rating Schemes

This is a guest blog-post by  Professor Timothy D. Lytton

In my previous post, I suggested that regulation of front-of-package nutrition labels should begin with better enforcement of existing standards. Existing regulations, I argued, already provide adequate tools to clamp down on misleading labels. I focused on the three most common types of front-of-package nutrition labels: (1) those that provide simple quantitative statements, (2) those that rate individual nutrients, and (3) those that present seals of approval. In this post, I suggest how existing standards might be further developed to regulate a fourth type of front-of-package label.

Rating Overall Nutritional Value: Guiding Stars & NuVal

The fourth type of front-of-package nutrition label rates the overall nutritional value of foods. For example, Hannaford Brothers’ Guiding Stars label rates foods on a scale of zero to three stars and the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System rates foods on a scale from one to one hundred.

The FDA could build on its existing regulations concerning the use of “healthy” claims to develop multiple threshold definitions for overall nutritional value, for example providing three threshold definitions that would create a four-point scale: (1) foods below the bottom threshold, (2) foods between the bottom and middle thresholds, (3) foods between the middle and top thresholds, (4) and foods above the top threshold. This could be accomplished by adding further gradation to the current FDA definition of “healthy,” as the agency has already done for some single nutrient claims (for example, “low sodium,” “very low sodium,” and “sodium free.”).

Thus, food ratings in a scheme like Hannaford Brothers’ Guiding Stars would have to meet the corresponding FDA threshold definitions—a food labeled with three stars would have to meet the FDA’s top threshold definition, a food labeled with two stars would have to meet the FDA’s middle threshold definition, and so on. For schemes with a higher level of gradation, like NuVal’s one to one-hundred ranking, the FDA could use the same four-point scale. Foods rated by NuVal in the top quartile (100-76) would have to meet the FDA’s top threshold definition, foods in the NuVal second quartile (75-51) would have to meet the FDAs middle threshold definition, and so on. Calibrating nutrient profile rating schemes to graduated FDA definitions of relative overall nutritional value, using the definition of “healthy” as a starting point, would provide consistency among schemes based on the federal government’s dietary guidelines and health recommendations.

This means of regulation would also allow for variation among schemes in terms of gradation and rankings. Those who design nutrient profile labeling schemes could experiment with greater and lesser levels of gradation, and rankings could vary so long as they met or exceeded minimum FDA threshold levels. The purpose of my proposal to formulate a four-tiered definition of “healthy” is not to create an FDA nutrient profile rating system to displace private-sector rating systems like Guiding Stars or NuVal. The purpose is merely to provide an easily understandable system of minimum thresholds to prevent abuse. Thresholds should be set in such a way as to prevent high ratings for foods of low nutritional value—like Froot Loops—while allowing for variation in different approaches that are consistent with these minimum thresholds. This regulatory approach does not interfere with private sector efforts to develop more complex nutrient rating schemes, so long as those schemes satisfy minimum standards that prevent ratings that are false or misleading.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss why FDA imposition of a uniform, mandatory front-of-package labeling system—as proposed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest—might not be the best regulatory approach.

Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert and Angela Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School where he teaches regulatory law & policy, constitutional law, administrative law, and tort law. His article “Signs of Change or Clash of Symbols? FDA Regulation of Nutrient Profile Labeling” (forthcoming in Health Matrix, vol. 19, no. 2) is available online by clicking here. He is also working on an article about regulation of nutrition standards for school food. For more information, visit his Albany Law School faculty website.

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  • Jess

    I don’t think that the nutrition label’s positioning is the reason people are eating unhealthy. Educating people on how to read a nutrition label and what to look for – healthy and otherwise is what might get some people to make healthier choices. Becoming aware of your current lifestyle choices is the best place to start in getting healthier. Check out this fantastic blog for some great, simple health tips to help you get healthier: