Will "Nutrition Keys" on the Front of Packaged Foods Only Add to Confusion?
Unless you are a registered dietitian, a medical doctor, or a food scientist, reading food labels on packaged foods may be difficult and daunting. There seems to be so much information packed into that small label, including serving size, calories, fat (including saturated fat), cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate (including fiber and sugars), protein, several vitamins and minerals. And to boot, these items are expressed in a percentage of daily value based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Going to the grocery store has become tedious for some consumers, less like shopping for food for their families and more like math and science homework.
As Americans continue to gain weight and our national obesity problem gets worse and worse, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come together to commission the Institute of Medicine (an objective group) to help with developing recommendations for front of package labeling. The food industry, which is made up of many huge manufacturing companies, must follow the current labeling laws and post the familiar detailed label on all packaged foods.
But the idea of putting a simpler label on the front of a food package in addition to the mandatory label is coming to fruition soon. Actually, two major food industry trade associations, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, have gone ahead and developed a front of package label without waiting for the recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. It's based on "nutrition keys" such as calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars.
Manufacturers can choose to use only one of the figures and leave out the others, or they may choose to place two, three or all four on the package. Besides the info regarding the things we may need to limit in our diet (calories, saturated fat, sodium, sugar), manufacturers will also have an option to include up to two additional nutrients (ones that may provide a benefit to our diet), such as potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, C, D, calcium or iron. This new front-of-package label with these "nutrition keys" is purely voluntary and will likely show up by the end of this year. The food industry claims this system will help consumers make better choices when choosing their items in the grocery store.
To me, this is a bit confusing. Although it gives an "at-a-glance" picture of what the food contains, there is no frame of reference. A shopper has nothing to compare the numbers to. With the same idea in mind, England has adopted a similar system for front-of-package labeling, which provides color-coded information based on a traffic light idea: green, yellow and red. The idea is that shoppers can aim to have more of their cart filled with green, less with yellow, and minimize the red.
I have always encouraged people to eat less processed food and try to stick to wholesome, fresh foods with less packaging. The first choice is always the food that requires no label at all, because it's not in a package. However, many of us will still continue to purchase packaged items, out of necessity or convenience.
Will the proposed front-of-package labeling help you when shopping, will it just confuse you more, or will you ignore it altogether?
Every week the show is on break we'll be giving away a year-long membership to The Biggest Loser Club. To enter this time, you'll have to do some homework. Look in your cabinets, cupboards and fridges and find the item that has the highest calories, saturated fat or sugar per serving by looking at the nutrition facts. Then throw it away. For a chance to win a one-year membership to the BL Club, leave that information in the comments on my Flavor First Facebook page here.
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