How Food Labels Should Relate Healthfulness

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Lots of well-meaning people are trying to develop systems for labeling foods by their degree of nutritional quality (I file posts on this topic under Scoring systems). My preference is for traffic lights--green for eat anytime, yellow for once-in-a-while, and red for hardly ever). So I was not surprised to see an announcement of a new study from Australia that tested consumers' understanding of several kinds of food ranking systems.

According to the study itself, traffic lights beat out the other systems tested in helping consumers choose healthier foods. I hear rumors that the Institute of Medicine is starting a study to evaluate consumers' understanding of the various kinds of ranking labels on food products. I suppose we will need to wait until that study is complete--a process that usually takes two or three years--before we hear its conclusion. If we have to have one system, I'm voting for traffic lights.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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