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Whole Foods Market trials color-coded labels to guide healthier choices (but animal products are off the menu)

By Elaine WATSON, 12-Oct-2012

Related topics: The obesity problem, Sodium reduction, Food labeling and marketing, Health & Wellness, Markets, Healthy Foods

Whole Foods Market is trialing a new color-based front-of-pack labeling system designed to alert shoppers to healthier choices in its stores.

Speaking at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Philadelphia earlier this week, Jess Kolko, RD, LD,   Healthy Eating Registered Dietitian & Culinary Educator at Whole Foods, said: “We have developed a new food rating system to help consumers find healthier foods that we are piloting in two regions over the next six months.”

There is no red label. If you don’t meet the criteria, you get no label.

The scheme awards foods a green, yellow or orange sticker if they meet certain healthy eating criteria.

While this is a traffic-light scheme of sorts, there is no red sticker, said Kolko. If a food doesn’t make the cut, it won’t get a label.

We use six factors to evaluate each food: Sugars & sweeteners; sodium; whole grains / level of grain processing; animal product content; percentage of calories from saturated fats; and calorie density.”

She did not list the exact criteria foods will have to meet in each area to be awarded the stickers, but said the criteria will be shared with shoppers in stores and published on the Whole Foods website if it is rolled out nationally.

However, as a guide, green products must have no added sugar, salt, oil or animal products; yellow products can have some added sugars and sodium and a “minimal amount” of animal products; and orange products can have a little more added sugar, sodium, animal products and so on.

Why no animal products for green stickers?

But what if a food scores well on five out of six category areas but has a higher sodium level?

“If every category hits the top tier (green) except it has a sodium level that fits in the bottom category (orange) it will be placed in the bottom category”, she said.   

“All products will be reviewed for labeling and we will only label the healthiest foods. We will be bringing education to the stores as well when the program pilots so we can clarify this message.”

Asked by a delegate why the rating system prevented products containing animal products from scoring a green sticker (so no oily fish or dairy) despite the fact that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage increased consumption of low fat dairy, she said there had been a lot of debate within the company on this issue.

But she added: “This is just what we have decided based on scientific advice.”

Big food has big money. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains don’t…

In her presentation, which was about whole foods vs processed foods, and whether this is a useful way of making value judgments about food, Kolko said that food processing “occurs on a continuum” from no processing to minimally processed to processed for preservation (canning, freezing) to combining ingredients (adding sweeteners, spices) to ready-to-eat packaged foods designed to stay fresh over time.

As examples, she presented slides showing (from left to right) fresh corn, frozen corn, popcorn, corn starch and Karo syrup; plus apples, apple sauce, freeze-dried apple chips, apple puree, apply jelly and apple Jolly Ranchers.

Typically, as you move from left to right, you go from a nutrient-rich to a nutrient-poor product, she claimed. “Are processed foods nutritious? Absolutely, some of them are. But I think it’s important to recognize the degree to which foods are processed; traditional processing has progressed to ultra-processing.

“There is an overabundance of packaged foods that have left Americans with an overabundance of added sugar, saturated fat, sodium and refined grains.”

General Mills: Facts up Front scheme is a better approach

Dr Susan Crockett, who leads General Mills’ Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition and shared the podium with Kolko at FNCE, told FoodNavigator-USA that General Mills supported the industry-backed Facts up Front approach to front-of-pack labeling.

She added: “Facts up Front makes it very visible what you’re getting on the key nutrients, so if you’re watching your sodium or your calories you can track that more easily.

“As a large percentage of packaged foods will soon carry these labels, they will also become pretty ubiquitous, so consumers will be able to compare products more easily.

“All our cereals now have the labels and the complete product range should be labeled by the end of 2013.”

Click here to see what General Mills and ConAgra have to say about ‘processed foods’.

Click here to look at the pros and cons of the different front of pack labeling schemes.

Click here to look at our FoodNavigator-USA picture gallery of the different front of pack labeling schemes on offer.