Nutrition Labels: Here, There, and Everywhere (Online Exclusive) KELLY FREDERICK | February 1, 2009

In an effort to get shoppers to make wiser and healthier food choices, a growing number of food retailers are placing nutritional rating systems on store shelves. You might have seen these labels at your local supermarket, located right underneath your favorite food item.

In an effort to get shoppers to make wiser and healthier food choices, a growing number of food retailers are placing nutritional rating systems on store shelves. You might have seen these labels at your local supermarket, located right underneath your favorite food item. The idea here is to take the information on the Nutrition Facts label located on the food product packaging, simplify it, and then place it on the store shelves right next to the product. As Mark Kantor, IFT member and Associate Professor, Dept. of Nutrition and Food Science at the Univ. of Maryland explains, "Many consumers admit to having trouble understanding the current Nutrition Facts label, or they don't have time to read it." Proponents of this shelf rating system are hoping consumers will be unable to miss the rating since it is directly in front of their eyes, instead of hidden on the back or side of the packaging. In addition, by simplifying the information, supporters expect it will make deciding on healthy foods easier for consumers.

In the last year, many stores have introduced their own system for letting customers know the nutritional value of foods. Two of the systems that have been launched are Nutrition IQ and NuVal. Supervalu, the nation's No. 3 grocer that owns Albertsons, Bristol Farms, Jewel-Osco, and other chains, has developed Nutrition IQ. This program relies on color-coded shelf tags that front grocery aisles to help shoppers make selections. Some foods will have shelf signs with a red tab that says "low saturated fat," while others may have orange tags for high-fiber foods, green tabs for low sodium, and blue labels for foods with high calcium. Supervalu will be rolling out the nutrition tags at 1,300 stores in the next six months, and expanding it to even more of its stores later in 2009. The program was developed with the help of dieticians from the Harvard University-affiliated Joslin Clinic. The group evaluated about 4,000 food products from a variety of manufacturers, looking to see how the foods matched up with Food and Drug Administration Nutrient Content Guidelines. The group plans to evaluate more food products as the program expands. However, only products with limited levels of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar are able to receive the Nutrition IQ tag. This leaves out popular foods such as ice cream, cookies, juices, and other foods.

The NuVal Nutritional Scoring System launched last month in 116 Price Chopper and 225 Hy-Vee supermarkets. While the Nutrition IQ program uses color codes, this system distills nutrition information into a single number from 1 to 100; the higher the score, the higher the nutrition. Developed by David Katz, Director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Connecticut, and a 12-member team of nutritionists, the system uses the Institute of Medicine's Dietary Reference Intakes and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to quantify the presence of more than 30 nutrients—everything from fiber and vitamins to fat and sodium. It also takes into account how these nutrients influence health based on published scientific literature. So, some factors, such as trans fat, will be "weighed" more heavily due to their impact on health. The score is calculated using the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI), a patent-pending algorithm for measuring the nutritional quality of foods and beverages based on the influence they have on overall dietary goals. According to Robert Keane, spokesperson for NuVal, the company has already scored around 15% of products that you might find in your local grocery store, with the goal to complete scoring for most food products by 2010. Unlike the Nutrition IQ system, the NuVal system scores every food item. Independent from food manufacturers, this program is implemented in stores who have paid for the license to use the scores.

With the launch of these two systems, and other smaller, independent systems, many in the food and health industries are beginning to wonder if this labeling free-for-all is going to succeed in confusing consumers, instead of increasing comprehension. "Absolutely," said Kantor. "There is already confusion about how to interpret some of these ‘front of the package labels.'" Kantor is referring to simplified nutritional labels that are appearing on the front of some foods. For example, the Smart Choices Program places a symbol with calorie and servings information on food products that meet specific nutrition criteria based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Additionally, food corporations such as Sara Lee are placing call-out graphics with diluted nutrition facts on the front of products.

There are other concerns too. How do you balance the interests of the industry, government, and consumer groups, while making sure that consumers are not mislead? What should be the criteria for deciding whether or not a food is nutritious and deserves a high rating? What happens when a company changes the formulation of a product that has already been assigned a rating?

While Kantor believes the shelf nutrition rating labels are "a step in the right direction," he believes that people really already know what they should be eating. As he explains, "all the labels or nutritional rating systems in the world will not get people to change their eating habits unless they are motivated to do so." This raises a good point. How do we know that any of these rating systems will ultimately affect consumer behavior? To find this out, Adam Drewnowski, Director of the Center for Public Health and Nutrition, Univ. of Washington, highly recommends that the U.S. launch something similar to the EU-funded research project called Food Labeling to Advance Better Education for Life (FLABEL). This research project was set up to assess the effectiveness of the different labeling schemes in use and aims to provide a scientific basis for the use of nutrition labels by determining how labeling affects dietary choices.

Drewnowski has been working with a team since 2005 to develop a rating system based on the nutrient density of foods—defining foods by the presence of beneficial nutrients, not the absence of problematic ingredients. Currently, the system is undergoing consumer research to make sure that it does positively affect consumers' behavior, and not just in grocery stores, but throughout their day. "In my opinion, putting a number next to a food in a supermarket is not even half way there," said Drewnowski. "Many food-based decisions are made outside the supermarket, such as in a restaurant and at home." He believes the nutrient-to-energy ratio system will act more as a guidance system for people to base their total diet on. It seems that what Americans really need to do is change the way we think about food. Or, as Drewnowski said, "Instead of counting calories to control our weight, we need to make each calorie count." Only time will tell if these nutrition rating systems help get us there.

Nutrition IQ


Smart Choices Program

The Enterprise article

The Wall Street Journal article

Los Angeles Times article

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article download (pdf)

Food Labeling to Advance Better Education for Life (FLABEL)

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