The Institute of Medicine (IOM) certainly didn’t pull any punches in its front-of-pack labels report yesterday.
In fact it was pretty radical stuff. Forget all that ‘there’s no such thing as a bad food, only a bad diet’ talk, said the IOM. Some products are healthier than others, and front-of-pack labels should make this clear, at-a-glance.
If we really want them to make healthier choices, it argued, simply giving busy shoppers the facts and leaving them to judge if product A is better-for-you than product B will not work. We need to interpret the facts for them. Tell them which products are healthier.
And if they want to make more subtle comparisons between foods, no one is stopping them. That’s what the Nutrition Facts panel is for.
Do the math
Now this is pretty compelling stuff. When I’m pushing my shopping cart around Walmart, calculating how many grams of sodium I’m notching up as I go is certainly not top of my priority list.
So would a simple scoring system make life easier?
You bet. Three points vs two is easier and quicker to interpret – in the millisecond most of us spend reading food labels - than a detailed list of numbers and percentages that requires time and skill to interpret.
It’s bold and its simple. But is it fair?
Cue the IOM’s favored scheme, which includes calories – displayed prominently – and ascribes a rating of zero, one, two or three points (or ticks) to each product depending on whether certain thresholds are met for saturated and trans-fatty acids, sodium and added sugars.
Even the most nutritionally illiterate will get this, says the IOM: “The more points a food has, the healthier it is.”
It’s bold, it’s simple, and instinctively more consumer-friendly than the industry-backed scheme. But is it fair?
The devil is in the detail...And what about nutrient density?
As with all schemes that attempt to ‘rank’ foods such that they can be compared, however, the devil is in the detail.
How, precisely, are these points earned? Is it fair to focus purely on the bad stuff (nutrients of concern)? What about nutrients to encourage? Isn’t an omega-3 fortified cookie still healthier than a standard cookie, even if they both get zero points?
Will this scheme unfairly discriminate against products that are high in fat or sugar but also make a significant contribution to intakes of vitamins and minerals?
Should diet cola score more highly than cheese and breakfast cereal?
Should diet cola and sugar-free gummy bears score more highly than cheese and breakfast cereal? How can I tell if this cheddar cheese is better than that one if they both have zero points?
Should the rules be category-specific? And if so, which products fall within which category? Should some products be exempted altogether?
A blunt instrument?
Most importantly, perhaps, will the IOM scheme really motivate manufacturers to reformulate products?
While threshold-based schemes should drive reformulation as firms seek to score more points or move from an amber to a green traffic light, much depends on the subtlety of the model in question.
If all chocolate bars are disqualified from scoring because of their saturated fat content, what's the point of making modest fat reductions or adding more cocoa polyphenols if it won’t alter your final score?
IOM scheme would take serving sizes into account
On the plus side, unlike the UK Food Standards Agency’s traffic light scheme – which ascribes red, amber or green lights for fat, saturates, salt and sugar per 100g or 100ml of product – the IOM is proposing to take portion sizes into account by setting thresholds according to whether a serving contains more than, say, 20% of the daily value for sodium.
And to its credit, the IOM has anticipated many of the problems outlined above, and proposes several possible solutions.
But there are no easy answers, and there will be winners and losers in every food category.
A test of the FDA’s authority?
Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, as always, cuts to the chase. “All [FOP] schemes are reductive”, she says, but the IOM's scheme is better than what is currently on the table.
And as for addressing some of the challenges outlined above, the IOM “recommends a panel to review inconsistencies and contexts”, she points out.
Writing in her blog at foodpolitics.com she adds: “I see this as a test of the FDA’s authority to regulate and set limits on any kind of food industry behavior.
“If the FDA cannot mandate a label that might help consumers choose healthier food options or refuse to permit labels that mislead consumers, it means the public has little recourse against any kind of corporate power.”
The bottom line
So what’s the bottom line?
Facts up Front does exactly what it says on the tin. It provides the facts. But if you’re not prepared to invest the time to judge what these facts actually mean, these labels are of limited value.
As for the IOM scheme, it delivers where Facts up Front does not by doing the hard work for us and telling us what's healthier. But there is more to health than salt, fat and sugar and instinctively a scheme that looks at nutrient density such as Guiding Stars seems to make more sense to me.
If this sounds suspiciously like I am sitting on the fence, that's exactly where I am.
Both schemes have their pros and cons. The million-dollar question is whether either can drive a fundamental change in shopping habits. The proof, as always will be in the pudding.
What do you think? Click here to take part in FoodNavigator-USA’s poll on FOP labels.
Elaine Watson is a correspondent on FoodNavigator-USA.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. An award-winning journalist, Elaine has been writing about the food industry for more than 10 years for a range of print and online trade publications including The Grocer, Food Manufacture and Food Ingredients, Health & Nutrition.