Many people find the Nutrition Facts box on the back or side of food packages confusing—or just ignore it. It’s not surprising, then, that food companies and trade groups have been developing their own pared-down and more visible nutrition labeling in recent years, often for the front of packages.
The result, however, has been a jumble of competing numbers, checkmarks, stamps and other symbols that may confuse people even more. Since these labels are not regulated yet, can you even trust them—especially when they come from food companies that use their own nutrition criteria to judge their own products? After all, food companies have a lousy track record in promoting their own foods as “healthy.”
Introducing "Facts Up Front"
The latest front-of-pack nutrition label is called "Facts Up Front," from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute. It highlights calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar—food components you should limit because they contribute to conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. That’s a good move, in line with recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which was asked by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review front-of-pack label claims.
Food packages may also highlight up to two “nutrients to encourage,” from a list of eight—vitamin A, C, D, calcium, iron, potassium, protein and fiber—if they contain at least 10 percent of the Daily Value for that nutrient per serving. This is controversial, because it may encourage food companies to fortify junk foods with nutrients to make them look healthier. A food that has lots of sugar and saturated fat will look better if it can also boast high levels of calcium and fiber, for instance.
Among other pitfalls, listing protein (optional) is not necessary, critics point out, since most Americans get more than enough. And there’s no recommended limit for sugar, and no distinction between added and natural sugars (that’s true of the Nutrition Facts box, too). It would be helpful to at least list sugar in teaspoon amounts, in addition to grams. Moreover, the new label does not include unhealthy trans fat, as the IOM recommended.
Most packaged foods will eventually have Facts Up Front labeling, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. It takes the place of Smart Choices, the previous industry-led system, which was faulted for giving its seal of approval (a green checkmark) to sugary cereals, and deemed misleading by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But critics contend that this new label is jumping the gun on front-of-pack guidelines that the FDA was developing, which were to use “standardized, science-based criteria.”
Bottom line: Anything that highlights the calories, fat, sugar and sodium of a food in a simple way is a plus and allows for more easy comparison of products. But perhaps a better approach would be labels that focus on the healthfulness of the entire food rather than individual nutrients—for instance, a "traffic light" system (with red, amber and green dots), as used in the U.K. Another option is a numerical system, such as NuVal or a simple icon with checkmarks (zero to 3), as proposed by the IOM, to rate a food's nutritional quality.
Keep in mind, however, that there’s no clear evidence that any front-of-pack labeling actually leads people to choose healthier foods. And, of course, the healthiest options are whole foods that usually have no packaging or labeling at all.