How the food industry is making healthy eating ‘easy’ in 2012

Posted by
January 5, 2012

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to have a healthier diet this year, the food industry would like to to make it really easy for you.

So easy, in fact, that you’ll never have to read a list of ingredients again.

Of course, you can always forgo processed food entirely, If you’ve got the time and ability, that would be one way  to avoid having to read  product labels – and also bypass all the colorful packaging claims.  But if that doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen any time soon at your house, you’d best be wary of new “labeling systems” hyped as shortcuts to finding out the “facts” about product nutrition.

The current Nutrition Facts label, a now-familiar part of processed food packages, never quite made the grade in guiding consumers to better food choices.  Author Marion Nestle notes in her blog Food Politics that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  originally tested several versions for consumer understanding. “The result?” she writes, “Nobody understood any of them. The FDA, under pressure to complete the regulations by the congressional deadline, chose the option that was least poorly understood – the best of a bad lot.”

Apparently the FDA realizes that too, as it maintains a hefty website devoted to helping you figure out  the Nutrition Facts label with charts, graphs, and a little quiz at the end.

But even if the Nutrition Facts label was better understood and read more often by consumers, all of the “facts” it contains are based on one little piece of information that’s probably the most overlooked – the serving size. A serving size, which appears to have little resemblance to amounts actually consumed, is dictated by “reference amounts” from the FDA based on what a person would “customarily consume” in one sitting, which are calculated by “food consumption surveys.”

Once you’ve begun reading the confusing criteria used in determining what constitutes a “serving size” and the variations they allow from product to product, what becomes apparent is that the rest of the information you see listed on the “Nutrition Facts” label isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Another essential aspect of nutrition missing from that label is the amount of certain health-promoting compounds found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and teas called phytonutrients. Without mention of these flavonoids, carotenoids and other healthful compounds, a quick comparison of the Nutrition Facts labels for a Coke and a bottle of pure grape juice won’t show much difference between the two. In fact, a check of the facts label for my favorite honey green tea (high in antioxidants) makes it look like nothing more than a bottle of sugar water.

So with all the confusion, hype and missing pieces of the nutritional pie, it’s no surprise that the hunt is on for better quick-glance nutrition labeling. Currently the FDA is contemplating just how to go about revamping the Nutrition Facts labels (with proposed changes including more accurate serving sizes).

Meanwhile the food industry is again attempting to step up to the plate with its own version.

Last week, for instance, I reported on Supervalu’s “nutrition iQ” promotion, which also unfortunately omits more information than it offers. And undeterred by the embarrassing quick end to the Smart Choices labeling program in 2009 – which was supported and funded by major food companies – a new “nutrient-based labeling system” called “Facts Up Front” is being introduced by two industry groups, the Grocery Manufactures Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute. The name refers to the fact that the “facts” involved will be posted on the highly important front package space — an area comparable in value to a magazine’s cover or the “above-the-fold” space in a newspaper. (And I’m guessing such a prime location won’t be used to reduce the appeal of a product.)

Seemingly similar or identical to the same group’s Nutrition Keys program introduced in January of last year, Facts Up Front appears to be as much of an industry-funded effort as Smart Choices was. Pamela G. Bailey, president of the GMA,  is quoted in trade pub as saying, “Through our $50 million comprehensive, multi-faceted consumer education campaign, we will bring the Facts Up Front program alive for consumers and help them understand and use this important new tool.”

Say again? How can a system described as “simple” and “easy-to-use” require this much money to “educate” consumers? The program’s website states that the Facts Up Front program will “allow consumers to quickly see, understand and use key nutrient information as they peruse store shelves and navigate aisles.”  And, to better illustrate that fifty-million dollar education program, it attempts to prove that point with a three-panel graphic showing a  female stick figure shopper (perhaps reflecting the fight against obesity) examining the product with the word “look,” then spotting the new icons with the word “learn,” followed by a smiling stick-person head with the word “live” above it.

If only our efforts to ascertain the real facts about the ingredients in processed foods were all that simple – and reassuring.