The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) recently announced the launch of Nutrition Keys, a front-of-package initiative designed to help busy shoppers make better informed food choices at the grocery store.
The initiative was developed as a response to an industry specific request made last year by First Lady Michelle Obama regarding the need for useful front-of-package labels in the fight against childhood obesity.
Food and beverage manufacturers that choose to participate in the voluntary program will place a distinct icon set (aptly named for its resemblance to piano keys) on the front of all product packages emphasizing important nutritional information about that product. The icon set must indicate the amounts per serving of four basic “nutrients to limit”: calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar.
In addition to featuring the “nutrients to limit”, Nutrition Keys will also allow manufacturers to include in their icon set up to two “nutrients to encourage”. If a product contains more than 10% of the daily value for potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and/or protein, per serving, the manufacturer will have the option to include whichever two they prefer to highlight.
In smaller print, the Percent Daily Value will also be included in each icon, when applicable, as established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
For small packaged food and beverages, where label space may be limited, participating brands can forgo the icon set and simply include the calories per serving.
The Nutrition Keys program is loosely modeled after the UK’s voluntary, but consumer-friendly, front-of-pack food labeling program that utilizes traffic light colors to indicate nutrition level for the same four nutrients.
To support the program, participating manufacturers and retailers have pledged to sustain a $50 million marketing and educational campaign targeted at primary household shoppers (i.e. parents). This campaign will include everything from television and radio commercials to print advertisements and in-store awareness events.
Although the marketing campaign isn’t slated to begin until fall of 2011, consumers can expect to see the new icons popping up on packaged foods and beverages within the next few months.
The Bottom Line
Highlighting nutrition information based on serving size and Percent Daily Value isn’t really any different than what can already be found in the Nutrition Facts Panel printed on the back of the package.
The GMA and FMI also need to address the fact that people consume more than a single serving at one time. For example, a bag of chips or bottle of soda that is consumed in one sitting generally contains 2 to 2.5 servings. For these types of packages, consumers would be better served if the Nutrition Keys indicated the total amount of calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar for the package.
Listing sugar content, in grams, can also be misleading because there is no Percent Daily Value to reference and the icon doesn’t indicate whether the sugar is naturally occurring or added. Also, since the average consumer probably isn’t mentally converting grams to teaspoons, this information is likely to get overlooked.
While we have to applaud the GMA and FMI for creating a simple program that puts potentially negative nutrition facts front and center, the fact of the matter is that if you want to be healthy, you shouldn’t eat processed, packaged foods in the first place. To avoid the confusion and marketing gimmicks, create your own simple program by opting for fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains and lean meats to fill you up.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.