Consumers often look for icons such as MyPyramid or Pepsi's Smart Spot checkmark (lower right corner), on packages or store signs as cues to health-and-wellness products.

Icons or symbols have become vital components of labeling, particularly when they pertain to health claims, and they are currently becoming the focus of a great deal of debate, as well as activity, that may well lead to some important changes.

Consumers, in search of the healthiest products, are more and more becoming avid label readers. They use these elements as a quick shorthand for the health-and-wellness benefits of products. For these reasons, it’s important for retailers, as well as their supplier partners, to monitor change in this area. It’s even more important not to view it in a regulatory light, but rather as an opportunity to launch promotions and/or in-store signwork playing off the icons and symbols.

The Food and Drug Administration permits symbols and other graphic devices outside of the Nutrition Facts box on a label to explain nutrition information, with, of course, the provision that it be truthful and does not mislead in any way. These symbols can have many different sources. Trade associations are one, such as the American Heart Association’s checkmark or the Whole Grain’s Council’s stamp. The federal government has the USDA MyPyramid, and so do also public health bodies, such as the Produce for Better Health (“fruits and veggies More Matters” program and icon).

However, manufacturers and retailers themselves are increasingly entering or reinforcing this trend, particularly. For example, Pepsi has increasingly deployed its “Smart Spot,” and Unilever is investing in “Choices Based on International Guidelines” symbol.

At the retail level, Hannaford is using its recently “Guiding Stars” nutritional rating system (good, better, best) and the associated icon is being rolled out into the stores. Giant Stores (Landover, MD) is a USDA partner for MyPyramid. Topco has forged a joint venture with ONQI, which provides an Overall Nutrition Quality Index. This index rates a food’s nutritional value, based of 30 ingredients, on a scale of 1 to 100. It, too, has a logo associated with it. The program was developed at Yale-affiliated Griffin Hospital.

On top of all this activity, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has petitioned FDA to create a single nutritional system with icon or, at the very least, formulate mandatory guidelines. However, neither of these scenarios is likely to happen-and that’s good news. What is most likely, say Washington insiders, is that there will be voluntary guidelines, which will open the field to some new ideas.

The point is, this activity opens up an opportunity to use the increasing availability of health icons not only on private label products but also to play off them in advertising and promotion. Suppliers and retailers alike are reaching out to consumers with visual cues to understand a products health benefits, feel confident of the product’s efficacy and be prompted to purchase. Iconmania bears close observation, starting right now.F&BP