Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Nutrition Labels: For Better Or For Worse

In response to a call by the first lady and health officials for clearer, more consistent food labeling, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute teamed up to pioneer a new display on the front of food packages. Some claim that the new nutrition information represents the most ambitious overhaul to food and beverage labels since the 1990 law that established the now-ubiquitous “Nutrition Facts” box that appears on all processed foods. The plan, titled Nutrition Keys, aims to help consumers make better (read: healthier) decisions about food. Although the plan has received lukewarm support from the White House and government officials, many believe this change has been a long time in coming.

Critics argue that while the updated label is a significant step in the right direction, it fails to adequately provide the information consumers need to make smart choices about food. Although, in theory, nutritional information will be featured more prominently, in practice, most Americans are unaware of the significance of the numbers displayed, so marketing deception is still at play. Currently, the industry plan allows manufacturers to display as many as two “nutrients to encourage” on each package, from a list of eight — potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and protein alongside the four required nutrition facts (calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars). This could lead to some confusion for consumers who are unsure what’s “good” for them and what’s “bad”.

The two groups behind the package-front label change said the vast majority of food manufacturers will introduce the new look in the coming months. As an increasing number of processors add the updated nutrition facts to their products, try to notice whether the information is more or less helpful than the existing packaging display. Will it positively influence American eating habits?

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