Getting objective about food facts

Let’s say you need to stock up on emergency frozen dinners. You know your kids like pizza and lasagna equally well, and you want to choose the more nutritious option.

You can analyze the package’s Nutrition Facts panel, assuming you can collectively assess more than a dozen nutrient values. In other words, assuming you’re unlike just about everyone in the supermarket.

I’m not knocking the Nutrition Facts concept. When it came out in 1992, I was a big fan (unlike a lot of people in the industry).

But Nutrition Facts has its limits. Most consumers don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to crunch all those nutrient grams, milligrams and percentages. One solution is to simplify, with a system that reduces everything to a single message, either a single numerical score or a rating.

Various such systems exist, using icons like traffic lights or stars. The question is, who is going to set the standards, and who will enforce them?

Several food companies and supermarket chains, both here and abroad, have programs like this already in place. The problem is, no matter how rigorous the standards or how stringently they’re enforced, it’s basically just a company saying how good its products are.

The UK and Australia, among others, have debated instituting a system run by government or quasi-government agencies. But I’m not sure how that would fly in America. Leaving aside our innate suspicion toward expansion of government power, settling on a formula would be a nightmare. The current Nutrition Facts setup works because its very complexity allows it to be objective.

The answer may lie, as it often does, in the middle. Smart Choices is a program with participants that include Kraft Foods, ConAgra Foods, the Kellogg Co. and General Mills. Foods that meet criteria in 19 categories, comprising both desirable and undesirable nutrients, get to use a green Smart Check logo.

The program is administered jointly by the American Society for Nutrition and NSF International, a not-for-profit public health organization. If it can be administered objectively-and, just as important, consumers are convinced that it’s administered objectively-it has winning potential.

Pan Demetrakakes
Chief Editor