A new national food labeling system is being criticized as ineffective at helping people make healthy choices about food.
A group of leading food and beverage manufacturers, led by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, introduced a new food labeling system Monday that places nutritional information visibly in the front of the package. Although the new system, called Nutrition Keys, is intended to help consumers make healthier food choices, Yale health experts doubt its effectiveness.
“[The Nutrition Keys program] is useless,” David Katz SPH ’93, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, said. “It doesn’t fix anything at all. Nutrition Keys would work if the problem is people’s inability to turn around the box. I don’t think that’s the problem at all.”
Nutrition Keys places four basic icons on food packaging that shows the amount of calories, saturated fats, sodium and sugars contained in each product. Some labels will include the amounts of good nutrients, such as potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and iron. Yet even without this element, Nutrition Keys might cause the quality of the foods to be misrepresented, Katz said.
“One wouldn’t ordinarily think of diet soda as being a terrific food, but Nutrition Keys tells you about the calories, trans fats, sodium and sugars on the package. Diet soda gets zero for all of those,” Katz said. “It’s going to look better than spinach that has some calories, or broccoli, or salmon or walnuts.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the Institute of Medicine, recently issued the revised version of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as required by Congress. The Food Marketing Institute announced Tuesday on their website that the Nutrition Keys initiative will help shoppers implement these guidelines.
“We share First Lady Michelle Obama’s goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in a press release. “Food and beverage companies have a strong track record of providing consumers with the products, tools and information they need to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle, and this program represents a significant milestone in our ongoing effort to help consumers construct a healthy diet.”
But Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla, director of the Yale Office of Community Health and one of the members of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee, said the program does not follow the guidelines, as it fosters consumption of highly processed and heavily nutrient-fortified foods instead of fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, and whole grain cereals.
Perez-Escamilla said that he is willing to call for a revision in the Nutrition Keys food labeling program in order for people to truly benefit from their two years of work.
Katz, on the other hand, said the problem with Nutrition Keys is not the labeling, but its ineffectiveness to help consumers select the most nutritious food. Katz said consumers are not always able to interpret these numbers.
“What you really want is a food that is good for you not because of one nutrient but overall,” Katz said. “Nutrition facts, whether on the front or on the back of the package, will not answer that question for you. Facts are not knowledge. Knowledge requires the interpretation of facts.”
People need to be able to put all the nutrition values together and then determine if the food is healthy or not, Katz said. He suggested the NuVal system, an algorithm designed by Katz and other nutrition and health science experts, that provides a single number indicating the overall nutritional quality of a food.
“That’s what I think is the solution. People should have the facts, whether on the front or on the back of the package, that doesn’t really matter,” Katz said. “But people need the experts to do the heavy lifting and interpret these facts. Nutrition Keys are an attempt by elements in the food industry to look like they’re doing something, when in fact they’re not doing anything. “
NuVal has been implemented in about 1,000 supermarkets across the United States, including in two Connecticut stores, Price Chopper and Big Y.
Correction: February 3, 2011
An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited the Food and Drug Administration and the Institue of Medicine as the authors of the 2010 dietary guidelines. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are developing the guidelines.