What nutrition information should be, literally, up front? More...

What nutrition information should be, literally, up front?

Government and the food industry are wrestling with the question of front-of-package (FOP) nutrition information. It’s generally agreed that it’s a good idea to provide info on calories and specific nutrients, both positive (vitamins, fiber) and negative (sugar, saturated fat), on the front panel of packaging, in a format that’s quicker and easier to read than the standard Nutrition Facts panel. But the devil is in the details-the specific rules and formats that an FOP system should follow.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) recently unveiled an FOP plan that it calls “Nutrition Keys.” It will spell out calories, salt, sugar and saturated fat per serving as a minimum, plus allow up to two listings for positive nutrients. According to USA Today, the labels will start appearing in the next few months and ramp up through the rest of the year.

This looks good on its face. Of course, there are a lot of people who aren’t inclined to take anything the food industry (or pretty much any industry) says at face value. They’re accusing the GMA of trying to preempt the Food and Drug Administration, which has been considering a mandatory FOP system following a study and recommendations last year from the Institute of Medicine. They’re saying the system needs certain embellishments.

Before we get to those, it might be worthwhile to look at a new survey from Health Focus, a consulting firm that specializes in health and nutrition trends. The study presented a sample of consumers with examples of packaging for 25 mainstream products like Kraft Foods’ Chips Ahoy! and ConAgra’s Healthy Choice Café Steamers. The packaging was presented both as it really appears, and with FOP info provided according to the format recommended by the Institute of Medicine. Consumers were asked how, if at all, the FOP numbers affected their intent to purchase the item. (They weren’t presented side-by-side. In other words, a consumer who looked at a Chips Ahoy! package without the FOP numbers did not see one with them, and vice versa.)

Some of the findings were surprising:

• Consumers most want to see FOP info for breakfast cereal, soup and frozen meals. They’re least interested in milk, carbonated soft drinks and sports drinks.
• Overweight or obese shoppers are less likely to read labels, and are no more or less likely to say they’re influenced by FOP info, than normal-weight consumers. But they’re more likely to say they read labels to pick out fat or other things they’re trying to avoid.
• Shoppers expressed preference for seeing the actual levels of calories and nutrients, as opposed to percent of daily value or symbols like “traffic lights” that rate foods as nutritionally poor (red light), so-so (yellow) or good (green).

This last goes to the heart of a major criticism of the GMA plan: It doesn’t advise consumers which products to avoid. Prominent food industry critics, including Marion Nestle of New York University and Kelly Brownell of Yale, support a traffic light-type system, on grounds that consumers need explicit advice to make sense of nutritional info.

My thinking is, that’s a little heavy-handed. I don’t think the FDA wants to take away Sarah Palin’s cupcakes. But requiring companies to explicitly warn consumers away from their products does not strike me as reasonable, except in clearly egregious cases like cigarettes. And if the Health Focus study is to be believed, consumers can get along without that advice anyway.

The Obama administration released a statement cautiously acknowledging GMA member companies “for the leadership they have shown in advancing this initiative” but saying the study will continue. The second phase of the Institute of Medicine study is due out later this year. We’ll see what kind of a traffic cop they want the FDA to be.