Oh No! Yet Another Front-of-Pack Nutrition Label to Confuse Us

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:

  • Calories
  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

We’re adding Nutrition Keys to our History of Nutrition Labels, hoping it goes away, just like Smart Choices did.

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.

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  • http://thelunchtray.com Bettina

    Just sent Lunch Tray readers your way for a critique of this new program: http://bit.ly/hctXCn Thanks as always for the great analysis.

  • http://www.miltonstokes.com Milton Stokes, MPH RD CDN

    What about NuVal?

  • http://shortystylee.wordpress.com Jessica

    An even better idea? Get away from nutritional labels when looking at what foods to buy. You know that apples, broccoli, and kale are healthful. You don’t need to put a nutritional label on them.


  • http://www.foodieformerlyfat.com Foodie, Formerly Fat

    I feel like a harpie when I say this, but it just seems to always be the best response to the food industry. You’re better off if you buy foods that aren’t processed and don’t require food labels at all. An apple or spinach isn’t going to have to put up confusing labels to make you think you’ll be healthy if you eat it. The health of food you put in is the kind of health you’ll have after eating it!

  • http://foodtrainers.blogspot.com Lauren Slayton

    I have to agree with Jessica. This makes food a bunch of numbers and stats and less appealing. I vote for the ingredients listed on the front of the package.

  • elisabeth

    To me, the most dishonest and confusing aspect is the use of “DV” An unsophisticated user might thing that one is supposed to be at 100% of DV for Sat Fat or salt, as well as for fiber or any other “positive” item that is chosen for highlighting!
    And, of course, what’s important to some users may not be to others. With so much type 2 diabetes around, it might be good for the information those diets need to be more prominently and completely available. It’s been interesting to see how quickly “gluten free” got onto packages, it’s a claim that is crucial to a smaller group of purchasers but has become something that is being sold as a synonym for “healthy” to everyone (I think that “organic” and “kosher” work in similar ways).

  • Betsy Keller, MS, RD

    Let common sense prevail….read the ingredient list! Thanks for this informative overview of the Nutrition Keys program which only confuses consumers and places the information out of context (how is this any different than the abandoned smart choices program?). A serving of frosted flakes and a light yogurt both have 14 grams of sugar……and how many consumers can tell you how many grams are in a teaspoon?