Friday, October 21, 2011

New Nutrition Label?


The nutrition label on the front of a box of cereal, a frozen dinner or any other food should be as quick and easy to read as the Energy Star label on a clothes washer or an air-conditioner, according to a study released Thursday that was requested by Congress.

In a report to federal regulators, the Institute of Medicine called for a simplified label that would go on the front of food packages and show the number of calories per serving and contain zero to three stars or checkmarks to indicate how healthful a food was.

“It’s simple,” said Alice H. Lichtenstein, a nutrition professor at Tufts University, who served on the committee that prepared the report. “It’s interpretive. People don’t need to look at numbers or do any calculations to figure out what they mean. Three stars are better than no stars.”

The report was done at the request of Congress and submitted to the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Agriculture. It calls on the agencies to establish a uniform labeling system to replace the confusing proliferation of front-of-package labels greeting consumers on store shelves today.

Margaret Hamburg, the F.D.A. commissioner, has said she wants to improve front-of-package labels, but the agency is not expected to move quickly on the institute’s recommendations. The F.D.A. said it was continuing to assess the topic.

The report is the latest salvo in a long battle over labeling involving food companies, public health advocates and regulators. At stake is how nutrition information is presented and how it might affect the way consumers spend their money.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry group that represents major food companies, brushed aside the report’s findings and said its members would go ahead with their own labeling plan, called Facts Up Front.

Under that plan, labels show the amount of various nutrients in grams or other units and, in many cases, the percent of a recommended daily value for each nutrient that they supply.

“We have a road-tested, ready-to-roll front-of-pack system that is already in the marketplace,” said Scott Faber, a vice president of the food makers’ group. “We should not keep consumers waiting. We should provide them more nutrition information on the front of their packages now.”

Critics say that the industry’s label can be confusing to consumers, burying them in a blizzard of numbers that can be hard to understand.

The institute modeled its recommendations on the easy-to-interpret Energy Star symbol that appears on many appliances to show they have met government standards for energy efficiency.

“I really don’t know a whole lot about appliances and kilowatts, but when I see the Energy Star on a stove I want to buy, I know it’s energy-efficient and that’s all I need to know as a consumer,” said Ellen A. Wartella, a professor of communication and psychology at Northwestern University and the chairwoman of the committee that wrote the report.

Under the plan recommended in the report, a food could earn up to three stars or checkmarks — one each for falling below a threshold amount for sodium, added sugar or saturated and trans fat.

If a food contained an excessive amount of any one of those nutrients, however, it would get no stars at all.

Some sweetened foods, including sugary soft drinks and candy, would automatically receive zero stars.

Source: William Neuman, New York Times: 10/20/11

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