Food industry is hoping shoppers will look no further than ‘Facts Up Front’

Posted by
May 21, 2013

Last year I wrote about the numerous front-of-package labeling systems out there, from Safeway’s “SimpleNutrition” to the “NuVal” scoring system to Walmart’s “Great for You” label and the well-funded, industry-sponsored “Facts Up Front” – all of which I suspected at the time of being part of a master plan to encourage us not to read ingredient labels.

Well, I haven’t changed my mind. In fact, the current effort to promote Facts Up Front, which was first launched in 2011 by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute,  has made it more evident than ever that the food industry doesn’t want us to look at any of the “facts” about a product beyond those on the highly hyped ‘front of package’.

Last month the GMA debuted its marketing plan for the Facts Up Front label, soon to include a major advertising blitz, with the launch of what it calls “a simple, interactive…web-based tool” to teach consumers how to “make informed choices.” The organization also refers to its front-of-package icons, consisting of four to six small blue boxes with rounded bottoms, as “the most significant reform of food and beverage labels in over 20 years.”

So what’s all the hoopla about? Well, if you peer carefully enough at those little blue boxes (a task for which some people might need a magnifying glass), you’ll find data on calories and three nutrients that’s been borrowed directly from the nutrition facts label “around the corner” of the package – including “daily values” of two optional nutrients to help sell some products.

What $50 million buys

Originally called “Nutrition Keys,” this particular system soon morphed into Facts Up Front after the GMA received some “advertising and communications counsel,” according to its spokesperson, Ginny Smith. And while the blue icons may not appear all that impressive, the group has also received some big bucks  – around $50 million – to “support” the program. But then, it’s not every campaign that can use Michelle Obama as a selling point.

While it doesn’t appear that the First Lady actually endorses Facts Up Front, or any other industry-generated labeling initiative, for that matter, the GMA loves using her photos and edited videos to help sell the concept. Its website, for example, includes parts of her keynote speech at the GMA Science Forum in 2010, where she said that parents don’t have the time to “untangle labels filled with ten-syllable words or do long division with these portion sizes.”

So does Facts Up Front solve this problem? Apparently the GMA believes that it does, but exactly how? Well, in a video that can be viewed at the new and improved Facts Up Front website called “Saving Time and Money,” Registered Dietician Kim Kirchherr claims the system allows a busy shopper to use these ‘facts’ to “pull (a product) off the shelf and really read the rest of it as time allows.”  I’m sure the GMA member companies, which include most Big Food brands, just love it when consumers “pull” products off the shelf like that without any further inspection!

So how does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration feel about this type of promotion? “We have been keeping the FDA informed of our plans and our progress, Smith maintained,  “and what they told us repeatedly is that they are intrigued and interested.”  That contention, however, is challenged by some experts, including food writer Marion Nestle, who believes that Facts Up Front is a “scheme” to do an “end run” around the FDA’s own front-of-package labeling initiatives. Others view it as an attempt to “preempt” the agency.

Whatever the industry’s explanation of the program’s purpose, the fact remains that Facts Up Front doesn’t do much in the way of helping consumers make better food choices, but merely directs the attention of shoppers right to where food and beverage manufacturers want it – the valuable, and often deceptive, front of the package.

Green means ‘healthy’– right?

With all of the front-of-package labeling concepts now in play, the importance of what color these “nutrition” icons appear in has received little scrutiny, until now.

A recent study by Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, appearing in Health Communication indicates that these icon colors do indeed make a big difference in how consumers react to a food item, and more specifically, how healthy they perceive the food to be.

Schuldt found that study participants “perceived a candy bar as healthier” when it contained a green label instead of a red one, despite the fact that the labels showed exactly the same calorie count, leading to the conclusion that “green labels increase perceived healthfulness,” especially in consumers who say they give ‘healthy eating’ high importance.

Perhaps that’s what candy company Mars had in mind when they incorporated the “Guideline Daily Amounts,” or GDA, in its candy line-up, with a green-coded calorie count on the front of the package, and green fat, sugar and sodium listings on the back.

Despite any other techniques these highly compensated marketing minds may have in store for us to better sell their goods, be they icons, stars, wheels or Walmart’s  person-shaped symbol, the real information you need to look for – although it’s not on the front of the package – is the ingredient label. And by simply  reading that, you won’t be hoodwinked, as Dr. Schuldt put it, “….to perceive relatively poor nutrition foods in a healthier light.”