CSPI petitions for national 'healthy food' labels

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

A leading US consumer advocacy group has petitioned the nation's
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to design a national set of
symbols to help consumers quickly identify healthier foods.

The legal petition, filed yesterday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), calls for the easy-to-use markers as a supplement to the current Nutrition Facts label.

According to the CSPI, a system like this is necessary as the multitude of health logos and symbols currently being used convey inconsistent nutrition information and only result in confusing and misleading consumers.

"The supermarket is teeming with competing 'healthy food' symbols that run the gamut from highly helpful to fatally flawed,"​ said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.

"But a prominent and reliable symbol on the fronts of packages would be a tremendous help to those harried shoppers racing through the supermarket. Not everyone has the time or knowledge to scrutinize the Nutrition Facts labels or to decode the symbols Kraft, PepsiCo, General Mills, or other companies happen to be using."

Currently, some of the most prominent symbols seen on products include Kraft's 'Sensible Solution' mark, PepsiCo's 'Smart Spot' and General Mills' different 'Goodness Corner' icons that meet FDA criteria.

In addition, there are a number of symbols designed by health or nutrition agencies and trade bodies that are increasingly used on products fulfilling certain nutrition criteria. These include the American Heart Association's 'heart-check' symbol, the Whole Grains Council's 'Whole Grain Stamp', and the dairy industry's '3-A-Day' symbol.

But according to the CSPI, the proliferation of rating schemes is a formula for confusion and deception.

And the Institute of Medicine also says that the "array of categories, icons, and other graphics, as well as the different standards employed by these companies may introduce some confusion, particularly for young consumers,"​ and that the FDA has not "yet fully explored its potential role"​ in encouraging industry-wide standardization.

The CSPI suggests that a national nutrition symbol system should be set up, and that the FDA should review programs from other countries and solicit comments from the public about how a similar system should be structured here.

Similar systems abroad include the UK's traffic light program, which uses green, yellow, and red dots to rank fats, sugar, and salt as low, medium, or high. And the Swedish government has a system featuring a green keyhole-shaped symbol to identify the healthiest choices within a food category.

According to the CSPI, one of the best systems currently used in the US was developed by the Hannaford supermarket chain in the Northeast, which uses "sophisticated nutrition criteria"​ as a basis for awarding to most products in its stores either one, two, three, or zero stars, which it displays alongside the price of the item. It ranks both its store-brand products and those of made by other companies. And under Hannaford's system, products that carry other nutrition symbols often do not gain high marks. For example, General Mills' Chocolate Lucky Charms receives no stars as it has too much sugar - 50 percent by weight.

But the CSPI says that well-designed 'healthy food' symbols would steer Americans away from foods that promote obesity, heart disease, and other serious health problems, and toward fresh and processed foods that promote good health.

The consumer advocacy group, which was joined by fourteen researchers and physicians in supporting uniform, front-of-label healthy-food symbols, acknowledged that its filing is only the beginning of what would be a lengthy rule-making process, but said it hopes the proliferation of confusing and inconsistent symbols being used now will spur the FDA to act quickly.

"The FDA should tear down this Tower of Babel propped up by food companies, and give consumers the reliable information they need at a glance,"​ said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade, who was a driving force in winning passage of the 1990 law that led to the Nutrition Facts label.

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