Selling or educating?
No food company wants to display nutrients to avoid. For the food
industry, the entire point of front-of-package labels is to market
products as healthy or "better for you" no matter what they contain.
Front-of-package labels are a tool for selling, not buying. They make
highly processed foods look healthier.
Will companies accept a voluntary labeling scheme that makes foods seem worse? Doubtful.
Nutrition ranking symbols began appearing on food packages in the
mid-1990s, when the American Heart Association got companies to pay for
displaying its HeartCheck.
Food companies then established their own systems for identifying
"better-for-you" products. PepsiCo, for example, developed its own
nutritional standards and proclaimed hundreds of its snacks and drinks
as "Smart Choices Made Easy."
In an attempt to bring order to this chaos, food companies banded
together to develop an industry-wide system. Unfortunately, their joint
Smart Choices checkmark appeared first on Froot Loops and other sugary
cereals. The ensuing ridicule and legal challenges forced the program to
At that point, the FDA, backed by Congress and other federal agencies, asked the Institute of Medicine for help.
The institute released its first report last year. It revealed
inconsistencies in the 20 existing ranking schemes from private
agencies, food companies and supermarket chains. Toasted oat cereal, for
example, earned two stars in one system, a score of 84 (on a scale of
100) in another, and a score of 37 in a third.
The report said labels should display only calories and to-be-avoided
nutrients. Labels should not display "good-for-you" nutrients --
protein, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals -- because these would
only confuse consumers and encourage companies to unnecessarily add
nutrients to products for marketing purposes.
Although the FDA was waiting for the second institute report before
taking action, the food industry wasted no time. The Grocery
Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute introduced their
They got their members to agree to a more complicated system,
"Nutrition Keys," based on nutrients to avoid but also including up to
two "good-for-you" nutrients.
Food companies immediately put Nutrition Keys' symbols -- well
established to be difficult for consumers to understand -- on package
labels where you can see them today. Now called Facts Up Front, the
symbols are backed by a $50 million "public education" campaign.
The reasons for the industry's preemptive strike are obvious. The
second Institute of Medicine report gives examples of products that
qualify for stars -- toasted oat cereal, oatmeal, orange juice, peanut
butter, and canned tomatoes, among them.
It also lists the kinds of products that would not qualify for stars,
including animal crackers, breakfast bars, sweetened yogurt, and