November 10, 2011

Food Labels May Get Overhaul

This press release in HealthDay News is somewhat confusing and makes me wonder whom the writer works for, HealthDay News or the food industry.

First off, food labels are rarely on the front of food and beverage packages. Most are on the back, side, and occasionally even the bottom. Do they need to be simpler? Maybe not simpler, but a lot more informative and accurate is my point. Presently there are gaping holes in the current food label requirements that the food industry are taking full advantage of and abusing to the maximum.

"There are a lot of different [rating] systems out there," said Ellen Wartella, chair of the IOM committee that wrote the report, and director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University. "But no one system has all the features we think are most helpful. Our goal is to say no one has to be a nutrition scientist to discern whether a packaged food is healthy or not healthy."

"We want something that's readily identifiable, easily understood and that cues the consumer that this is a healthy product," Wartella added.

This is about the sum of the report issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). I do have to agree with the author that some standardization is due and the package fronts could very well be the place to put this so that consumers would know where to look instead of having to flip the box around to look on the back or sides.

The IOM report suggests a rating system based on the serving size that tells the consumer whether the package contains ingredients that are more or less healthy than recommended for fats, sodium, and sugar. The report also suggests the label be located in the same spot on all products.

Now I may have to disagree on using the USDA healthy dietary recommendations and even many of the Medical Groups recommendations. I do agree with the report that the food and beverage industry be motivated to reformulate products to be healthier. I also agree that foods that do meet these requirements be prominently displayed in food stores.

The report also urges that a single system would let consumers quickly compare choices within a variety of food categories just by looking at the front of the packages.  “Determining whether or not a product can carry a healthy food package label would be done on a point system based on how much sugar, salt and fat it contained. These were picked because they are linked to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, among other illnesses.  To be eligible for a "healthy" label, the product would have to have limited amounts of sugar, salt and trans fats, the IOM committee said.”

The Grocery Manufacturers Association has already come up with its own labeling system. "In January, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute launched Facts Up Front, a fact-based, front-of-pack nutrition labeling system to help busy consumers -- especially parents -- make informed decisions when they shop," said association spokesman Brian Kennedy.”

No matter how this is accomplished, there are bound to be discussions about who gets favored status and whether the labels meet any standards that are easier to read and assess whether the food and beverage industry have more loopholes to be able to sidestep the requirements. It is clear that current labels are not meeting the needs of consumers and the loopholes are being abused.

One example is the term “contains whole wheat” and this can mean maybe if we are lucky ten percent whole wheat and the remainder is not whole wheat. In addition, whole wheat in its current form may not be the healthiest for us. Moreover, those of us with diabetes know that high fructose corn syrup raises our blood glucose levels faster and higher than we should have them increased, and the same goes wheat.

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