Food manufacturers have unveiled plans to pump $50m into promoting the Nutrition Keys front-of-pack (FOP) labeling scheme just days before the release of an independent report on the merits of a range of FOP schemes from the Institute of Medicine (IOM).
The ‘Facts Up Front’ campaign – developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) – will launch in 2012, by which time almost three quarters (70%) of packaged foods in the US will carry the Nutrition Keys icons, said a GMA spokeswoman.
The labels, which feature calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving plus the option to highlight two ‘nutrients to encourage’ have already started to appear on foods and help busy shoppers make more informed choices, she claimed.
Industry can move more quickly than government
Asked why manufacturers and retailers had not waited for the IOM to make recommendations before rolling out their own schemes, she told FoodNavigator-USA: “Food and beverage companies can move quickly – much more quickly than government – to implement a front-of-pack nutrition labeling system that helps consumers make informed decisions.”
She also rejected suggestions that Nutrition Keys was not supported by solid research.
GMA: Consumers want fact-based, not interpretive approach
“A fact-based, rather than interpretive, approach like the Facts Up Front concept has been widely tested and enjoys high approval ratings from consumers. A fact-based approach also aligns best with the current regulatory framework.”
She added: “In addition to adhering to current FDA and USDA- Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines and regulations for nutrient content claims, the program aligns with the IOM Phase I recommendations.”
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the American Dietetic Association conference in San Diego yesterday, General Mills' senior consumer insights manager Karlis Nollendorfs also defended Nutrition Keys, arguing that consumers did not want manufacturers to rank foods for them via a traffic lights system and preferred to make their own judgements based on the facts.
IOM report due in October
The IOM would not comment on the GMA's timing, but said its expert committee was almost ready to publish its recommendations, adding: “We’re working hard to get the report released in October”.
The committee – which is sponsored by the government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - has been considering the benefits of a single, standardized FOP scheme to be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has been asked to come up with recommendations for a scheme best suited to help consumers make healthier choices.
Hain Celestial: Nutrition Keys misleads consumers
Given the GMA and FMI were well aware that the IOM was about to publish its recommendations, their decision to plough on with their own scheme regardless played into the hands of those claiming industry could not be trusted with the nation’s health, claimed Hain Celestial chief executive Irwin Simon earlier this year.
“The industry should wait for the IOM report or risk being perceived as untrustworthy and inviting further government intervention.”
He also raised concerns that the Nutrition Keys scheme focused too much on what was not in foods, rather than their overall nutritional merits.
“Under Nutrition Keys a snack consisting of nothing more than refined sugar, artificial flavor, artificial color, a small amount of salt, and a small amount of Vitamin C could appear to be a vitamin-fortified, low-calorie, no-fat, low-salt, no-trans-fat product, implying that it is 'good-for-you' when it is actually a product of non-nutritive calories that could contribute to obesity.”
Manufacturers should have waited for IOM report
Lobby group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) - which claims Nutrition Keys is “confusing” and will be “largely ignored by consumers” – urged manufacturers to “simply wait” until the FDA developed a “more useful system”.
Critics of the scheme also point to a commentary by Dr Kelly Brownell and Dr Jeffrey Koplan published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June, which asked: “Why would the industry not simply wait for the recommendations of this group of objective experts? Perhaps so that it could lock in a system that would change food choices as little as possible and preempt the imposition of an alternative system that would be based on the available relevant science.”
Traffic light systems - which ascribe red, amber or green dots based on how much fat, salt and sugar a product contains per 100g – were easier for consumers to understand and also motivated manufacturers to reformulate foods, argued the authors.
Are traffic lights any better?
However, traffic light systems have also proved highly controversial because of their failure to take serving sizes into account and their focus on negatives (fat, salt, sugar) rather than positive nutrition (fiber, vitamins).
For example, under the traffic light system adopted by many firms in the UK, nutrient-rich but salty products such as cheese or savory spreads feature red traffic lights for sodium because they contain a lot of sodium per 100g, despite the fact that per serving, they are often lower in salt than products featuring green traffic lights.
For example, a ready meal with relatively low levels of salt per 100g could get a green light for sodium even though a 400g serving could contain surprisingly high levels of salt overall.
Traffic light systems have also been criticized for awarding green dots to products seen as having little nutritional value such as diet colas, which might quench thirst but do not deliver much positive nutrition.