In a brash and preemptive move against the FDA and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the 2 largest trade organizations representing the food industry have announced a new front-of-package label – Nutrition Keys.
Here’s the pitch from the Grocery Manufacturers Association:
In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama asked industry to develop a front-of-pack labeling system that could be widely adopted on food packages and that would help busy consumers – especially parents – make informed decisions when they shop. In response, America’s food and beverage manufacturers and retailers have joined forces to develop and implement the Nutrition Keys initiative, an unprecedented voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labeling system that will provide nutrition information on the front of food and beverage packages, including calories and three “nutrients to limit.” read more…
The new front-of-pack label will present the following information, per serving:
- Saturated fat, in grams and as a percent of the daily value
- Sodium, in milligrams and as a percent of the daily value
- Total Sugars, in grams (no percentage, because no daily value has been set by the FDA/USDA)
- Up to 2 additional good-for-you nutrients, stating both weight and percent of daily value
It is expected that 70% of products will be labeled with Nutrition Keys by the end of 2011. The food industry is planning to spend 10s of millions of dollars to “educate the public” about the new label.
What you need to know:
The fact that food industry trade groups are pushing a new format just months before the FDA is set to issue its own guidelines on the matter is very upsetting. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is all about marketing and sales, not about nutrition.
Leslie G. Sarasin, the chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute, said the matter was too urgent to wait - “the first lady asked us to do it.” Hahaha…
Here are a few additional problems with Nutrition Keys:
- Numbers without context are meaningless. In the example above, is 5 grams of fat a reasonable amount for a food? The UK solved this by using color coding in its Traffic Light system. 5 grams of saturated fat would be marked as RED, meaning way high. Obviously the food industry here does not want to mark anything with stop sign colors to turn off consumers.
- Especially confusing is the value for sugars. First off, how many of us can translate 14g to teaspoons? Secondly, how much of the sugar is naturally occurring and how much has been added? Naturally occurring sugars (in fruit, veggies, dairy) at least come with additional nutrients. Lastly, there is no indication of the daily value for sugar consumption. The 14 grams in the example above are 3.5 teaspoons of sugar.
- Including 2 positive nutrients on the label will confuse consumers – A product high in saturated fat but also high in fiber – is it good or not? This will also encourage excessive fortification of foods just to appear healthy. You can fortify cardboard with some vitamins, it still won’t make it healthy to eat.
- If the food industry would really like to help consumers, how about informing consumers about total calories per package, in places where the entire pack is consumed as a single portion. For example, a standard vending machine size soft drink bottle contains 220 calories (mostly from sugar). But in a serving size of 8 fl oz, only 90 calories are presented to the thirsty consumer.
That said, the one good thing about this front of pack label is that it is the first time industry is placing negative information about a product front and center – saturated fat, sodium, and to an extent sugars.
What to do at the supermarket:
Our recommendation is to ignore all front of package labeling as advertising and marketspeak. To know what’s in your product, turn to the ingredient list and to the nutrition facts panel. If you’re still confused, well, there’s an app for that.