The Next Food Fight

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The tussle over just how much information Americans need about their food hit a new milestone Tuesday when the Grocery Manufacturer's Association revealed its newest effort to comply with the FDA's demand for more consumer-friendly packaging. The new system, called "Nutrition Keys," highlights four pieces of nutritional information on the front of the box: calories, fat, sodium and sugar. If processed foods have some added benefit, like fiber, iron or protein, they can add up to two additional boxes alongside the standard four. Critics say Tuesday's launch was an attempt to cut the FDA off at the pass and substitute a system they support. The FDA proposal involves using the colors Red, Yellow and Green  to signal foods that are hands-down healthy (green) to less-than great (yellow or red).

Food manufacturers and the government have had this back-and-forth before over labeling; it's what's behind labels such as "juice" as opposed to "juice drink," and why the term "lite" means lighter, as opposed to signaling a specific amount of fat and calories. There was also the disastrous, industry-backed "Smart Choices" program, whose downfall was its flexibility: as Forbes's Rebecca Ruiz pointed out at the time, the standards were generous, and foods including Kid Cuisine's Magical Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and Slim Fast's Rich Chocolate Royale Shake made it onto the list of "Smart Choices." So, too, did sugar-laden (but fiber-containing) Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies. The program died a relatively swift death in 2009.  

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So is this new "Nutrition Keys" proposal just some industry gimmick? Or could it actually be helpful? Those speaking out online are pretty pessimistic:

  • It's No Rosetta Stone  These labels are as foggy as ever, says former FDA Commissioner David Kessler. "They can mask a food high in fat, sugar and salt and make it look better than it really is,” he says. 
  • An F From the Get-Go  Nutritionist Marion Nestle says Nutrition Keys makes the current terrible system shine by comparison, raising more questions than it answers. "It makes the percent Daily Values practically invisible. Which is better?  High or low milligrams or grams?" Her other issues: the new labels highlights sugars, "But these are total sugars, not added sugars, which is what really matters. And protein?  Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets?"
  • Bring in the FDA  Manufacturers didn't just blow it by creating a system that makes it "too easy to mislead the consumer," says Rep. Rosa DeLauro on her website, but the industry's "troubling" effort is proof that consumer-sided packaging requires a disinterested hand--specifically, the FDA.
  • It Misses the Point  The Executive Director of the Center for the Science in the Public Interest, Michael Jacobson, calls Nutrition Keys yet another futile food industry effort. The whole point of the FDA's push for clarity was that "front-label nutrition information or symbols should ... convey quickly and simply how healthful a food is. In contrast, Jacobson says Nutrition Keys appears to be designed to "distract consumers’ attention from, not highlight, the high content of sodium, added sugars, or saturated fat in all too many processed foods. "
  • Achieves Total Confusion  Setting aside what specific attributes are being highlighted or completely ignored, Good Magazine's Peter Smith assails the design for giving no clue as to whether what's being highlighted is good or bad: "Is 500 a good number for potassium?"
  • Unlike Fast Food Labels, This May Matter  Part of the debate surrounding nutrition labels is whether or not all the fuss is worth it. Recent findings indicate that posting calorie counts in a fast-food setting doesn't sway all that many people to choose apple slices over a double-decker bacon burger. When it comes to groceries, however, the rules change: for example, the FDA's March 2010 report shows that "More than half of consumers in the United States often read the food label when buying a product for the first time."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.