Big news in nutrition labeling this week. More precisely, in Front of Pack labeling (FOP). You know, the icons on a package that tell you a product is healthy, scores well, or is a smart choice. The idea is to simplify nutrition information into on simple score or check mark and thus facilitate making healthier choices.
Over the past few years, more than 20 different front of pack systems have emerged, each with different criteria, signage, and motivations. Some were industry sponsored, others got their start in academia, and some from non-profit organizations. Smart Choices, NuVal, and Guiding Stars have been covered in this blog extensively. We even posted a brief history of nutrition labeling.
At the end of the day, FOP labels ended up as a tower of babel – instead of empowering consumers, these markings left them even more confused.
After reviewing the challenges America faces, existing FOP systems, and the need for a simple solution, these are some of the conclusions a special committee reached:
1. Front-of-package rating systems and symbols would be best geared toward the general population.
2. The most useful primary purpose of front-of-package rating systems and symbols would be to help consumers identify and select foods based on the nutrients most strongly linked to public health concerns for Americans.
3. Regardless of system type, it would be useful to declare calorie and serving size information prominently in front-of-package symbols.
4. The most critical nutritional components to include in front-of package nutrition rating systems are calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium.
5. There is insufficient evidence at this time to suggest that including the following nutrients would be useful in all types of front-of-package rating systems or symbols: total fat, cholesterol, total carbohydrate, total or added sugars, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals other than sodium.
What you need to know:
We agree that excess calories, saturated fat, trans-fat and sodium are of biggest concern.
But at first reading, some of these conclusions are quite bold. For example – Total fat is not a concern . No need to look at fiber. And what about all those added sugars?
The IOM committee explains why outside the “fantastic four” nutrients, all others are not important to the general population for front of package labeling.
Total Fat – includes beneficial mono- and polyunsaturated fats, whose consumption is encouraged, and saturated and trans fats, whose consumption should be limited. Thus, it is difficult to characterize total fat content as either a positive or negative attribute of a food product.
Our take: agreed.
Cholesterol – an important concern for certain subgroups of the population, overconsumption of cholesterol is not as significant a problem for the general population as overconsumption of saturated fat, trans fat, or sodium, making it less important to include cholesterol in FOP system criteria. Saturated fat criteria may help to address most major sources of cholesterol in the diet since most foods that are high in cholesterol would not be rated well because of a high saturated fat content.
Our take: agreed.
Total Carbohydrates – A variety of compounds that vary greatly in their physiological function, including
monosaccharides, disaccharides, starch, fiber, pectins, and gums, are all considered carbohydrates. Because of these compounds varied physiological functions, it would be difficult in many types of nutrition rating systems to characterize total carbohydrate content as a positive or negative attribute of a food product.
Our take: agreed.
Total Sugars – There is a lack of scientific agreement about the amount of sugars that can be consumed in a healthy diet and about potential adverse health effects of sugars beyond an effect on dental caries. Thus, it is difficult to conclude that total sugars intake is of sufficient public health concern to be included in FOP rating systems. Total sugars include those naturally present in fruits, vegetables, and fat free or low fat
dairy products, which are considered foods to encourage.
Our take: agreed.
Added Sugars – Despite the overall increase in calories that they provide to the American diet, at this time evidence and agreement are lacking about adverse health effects of added sugars, the exceptions being the extra calories that they contribute to a diet and their dilution of essential nutrient intake. An analytical test that can accurately determine added sugar content is unavailable, leaving the sharing of proprietary product formulations as the only apparent option for monitoring product compliance with established criteria. Added sugars are not included in the Nutrition Facts panel, so including added sugars in FOP system criteria would lead to inconsistencies between the Nutrition Facts panel and FOP symbols.
Our take: Added sugar needs to be a mandatory line in the nutrition facts panel. Once people see how much sugar comes from natural sources rather than added on, they can choose less process products. Since this was beyond the scope of the committee’s work, they could not
Protein - Protein is not currently considered a nutrient of public health concern in the United States.
Our take: agreed. That’s why we find it crazy that all sorts of products pump up and then boast their protein count.
Fiber, Vitamins, and Minerals (Other Than Sodium) – For many vitamins and minerals, there is no public health need for the general population to increase intake. In the case of fiber and those vitamins and minerals for which there is a public health need to increase intake, inclusion in an FOP rating system could lead to practices that may not be beneficial to consumers, such as excessive or inappropriate uses of fortification, or might inadvertently drive consumers away from foods that do not contain these components but which are otherwise considered nutritious food choices.
Our take: We agree that fortification can skew results. A candy fortified with fiber and vitamins would suddenly rate as a health food. But, Americans are doing very poorly in fiber intake. Foods that naturally contain fiber and nutrients should rate higher than those that don’t. By naturally we don’t mean adding inulin as a fiber source.
Summary of our first impression: This report is the fist serious government funded overview of Front-of-Pack labeling and it makes some bold suggestions. We may even look back onto it in a few years as a landmark in nutrition labeling. It calls dibs on some deceitful industry practices, and shows through the FOP keyhole some of the problems we have created for ourselves with nutrition education and nutrition labeling in general.
What to do at the supermarket:
We preached in the past and will keep preaching, the only way to ascertain what you are getting is to invest time in reading and understanding the nutrition label and the ingredient list. A new label on the package will not change this fact.