Will Front-of-Package Food Labels Lead to Healthier Diets?

Nutrition Keys: A New Front-of-Package Labeling Program

In January, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) launched a voluntary program called Nutrition Keys in response to the challenge from the First Lady and an FDA request.

It will feature icons containing calories, saturated fat, salt, and sugar per serving along with one or two healthful nutrients (chosen by the manufacturer) on the front of packaged foods.

“Icons and label information for the Nutrition Keys has been consumer tested [and] adheres to FDA guidelines and regulations to ensure that consumers will receive consistent, reliable, and useful information,” says Sue Borra, RD, senior vice president of FMI. 

Products with Nutrition Key icons are expected to appear on products in the next few months. The icons will not replace the Nutrition Facts label on the back or side of the package.

“We didn’t want consumers to have to wait so we opted for a straightforward, easy-to-understand front-of pack[age] label, which hopefully will raise the bar on product reformulation and improve the nutritional value of foods,” Borra says. 
Critics Decry Front-of-Package Labeling

Critics claim the food industry’s front-of-package labels pre-empts the anticipated FDA guidelines and ignores the recommendation of a recent IOM report advising against putting positive nutrients on front-of-package labels.

They say that calling out positive nutrients on the front of packaged foods may confuse consumers if manufacturers use it to make junk food seem more nutritious.

“Front-of-package labels may so thoroughly mislead the public that another option deserves consideration - eliminate all nutrition and health claims from the front of processed food packages while strengthening the Nutrition Facts Panel,” David Ludwig, MD, PhD and Marion Nestle, PhD, RD write in a commentary in the Feb. 24, 2010 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

“I am concerned this voluntary effort is serving commercial, not public health, interests and may make it more confusing and misleading when nutrient information is out of context. It is the whole package, not just a few nutrients, that matter when evaluating a food’s value,” says Ludwig, associate professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. He is also concerned about portion sizes that aren’t realistic. 

“The Nutrition Facts panel has been improved with the listing of trans fats and more changes are needed to strengthen it, but the list of ingredients can be the consumer’s best friend.”

“If your grandparents wouldn’t recognize the ingredients because there are too many or [they are] unpronounceable, pass on it and choose another food with a few simpler, more natural ingredients” says Ludwig, who directs the Optimal Weight for Life clinic at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Expert Column

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