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Front-Label Nutritional Information Doesn’t Always Match What’s On The Back

(Photo by FDA/Getty Images)

In a “perfect” world,  consumers would be able to scan the shelves in the grocery store and make healthy choices based on the fronts of the labels.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a “perfect” world and all too often, manufacturers claims on the fronts of cans and packages don’t match the back Nutrution Facts.

No food company wants to display nutrients to avoid. For the food industry, the entire point of front-of-package labels is to market products as healthy or “better for you” no matter what they contain. Front-of-package labels are a tool for selling, not buying. They make highly processed foods look healthier.

A number of years ago, the Federal Government devised a system for informing consumers about exactly what is inside the food products they’re buying.  Most people are familiar with the “Nutrition Facts” table that appears on the backs of all food products sold in the United States.

These facts and figures are qualified with strict guidelines with the FDA.  Unfortunately, the information that appears on the front of food products – often in bold and large print – isn’t.

Food companies then established their own systems for identifying “better-for-you” products. PepsiCo, for example, developed its own nutritional standards and proclaimed hundreds of its snacks and drinks as “Smart Choices Made Easy.”

In an attempt to bring order to this chaos, food companies banded together to develop an industry-wide system. Unfortunately, their joint Smart Choices checkmark appeared first on Froot Loops and other sugary cereals. The ensuing ridicule and legal challenges forced the program to be withdrawn.

At that point, the FDA, backed by Congress and other federal agencies, asked the Institute of Medicine for help.

Now, there is a call for a systematic approach to the fronts of labels, too.

The institute released its first report last year. It revealed inconsistencies in the 20 existing ranking schemes from private agencies, food companies and supermarket chains. Toasted oat cereal, for example, earned two stars in one system, a score of 84 (on a scale of 100) in another, and a score of 37 in a third.

The report said labels should display only calories and to-be-avoided nutrients. Labels should not display “good-for-you” nutrients – protein, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals – because these would only confuse consumers and encourage companies to unnecessarily add nutrients to products for marketing purposes.

Although the FDA was waiting for the second institute report before taking action, the food industry wasted no time. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute introduced their own system.

 

Check marks on label aren’t sign of nutrition.

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