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Which front-of-pack labeling scheme is the most effective?

By Elaine Watson , 18-Oct-2011
Last updated the 18-Oct-2011 at 15:06 GMT

Results of a high-profile study into front-of-pack (FOP) food labeling schemes conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) will be published on Thursday (Oct 20), three weeks after food manufacturers announced the national rollout of an industry-driven 'Facts up Front' FOP scheme.

An IOM committee –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.

Industry can move faster than government

While food manufacturers were accused of jumping the gun by announcing the rollout of Facts up Front (Nutrition Keys) before the IOM report was published, the Grocery Manufacturers Association told FoodNavigator-USA the GMA had surveyed “thousands of consumers” before opting for its chosen scheme, and that consumers couldn’t wait for ever.

A spokeswoman said: “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 the ‘Facts Up Front’ labels – developed by the GMA and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) – were not supported by solid research.

Facts up Front labels should appear on 70% of packaged foods in 2012

“A fact-based, rather than interpretive, approach like the Facts Up Front concept has been widely tested and enjoys high approval ratings from consumers. 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.”

The Facts up Front labels, which feature calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving plus the option of highlighting two ‘nutrients to encourage’ have already started to appear on some foods and should feature on the “70% of packaged products in the marketplace” next year, predicted the GMA.

Front-of-pack nutrition labeling schemes have proved highly controversial in Europe, where some retailers and manufacturers have opted for ‘traffic-light’ color-coded schemes and others have chosen guideline-daily-amounts (GDAs) approaches similar to the Facts up Front scheme.

Color coding

While color-based systems are seen as more consumer-friendly by some, they have also proved highly controversial because of their failure to take portion 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 might be much lower in salt than products featuring green traffic lights.

Similarly, 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 multiple 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.

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