Labels for nutrients food contains, not what it lacks

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

The nutrition panel on food packaging should reflect the product as a whole rather than just ranking the single ingredients they contain or the unhealthy ingredients that have been taken out, according to an expert.

Nutrition information is confusing and a simpler system is required to help consumers make dietary decisions throughout the day, said Dr Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.

Nutrient profiling is the science of assigning foods into categories. Drewnowski has been working with the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition (NRFC) on a new system called the nutrient rich foods approach, based on the nutrient density of foods and beverages relative to calories.

The researchers have been looking at basic foods such as meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables but Drewnowski said the system would apply very well to processed foods.

His comments follow a survey on behalf of the NRFC which found that 54 percent of Americans are overwhelmed by the information and advice they receive on what to eat.

Two-thirds agreed that they were more likely to follow advice about nutrition goals for the whole day rather than individual foods they should or should not eat. The survey, conducted by Ipsos, also showed that 78 percent of participants were looking for a simple, practical tool that would help them build a healthy diet based on getting the most nutrients from their food choices.

Drewnowski, who is a member of the coalition’s scientific advisory committee, said: “In the US, we need to re-evaluate.

“We have become so used to thinking about the value of food in terms of the things they do not contain.

“We need to take into account the entire nutrient package and balance nutrients that encourage, against nutrients that limit, to help people build a healthy diet.”

Existing nutrient profiles tend to be based on elements such as saturated fats, sugar, sodium and cholesterol. Drewnowski said need to take into account protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals as well.

Under the nutrient rich foods approach, foods that provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals and relatively fewer calories are nutrient-dense. Foods that are low in nutrient density are foods that supply calories but relatively small amounts of vitamins and minerals. On the spectrum of nutrient density, foods and beverages with a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio are nutritionally-rich.

Choosing nutrient-rich foods as part of a balanced, active lifestyle is a cornerstone of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPyramid, which is the symbol and interactive food guidance system developed by the US Department of Agriculture. This encourages Americans to “get the most nutrition out of their calories”​ and “make smart choices from every food group”.

The NRF approach emphasizes enjoying nutrient-rich foods first within each food group identified in MyPyramid, and then selecting less nutrient-rich options as caloric recommendations allow. This approach helps people get more nutrition from their calories and build healthier overall diets.

Drewnowski said the proposed system could provide consumers with a logo, or a symbol, or a number to reflect the total nutrient content.

Industry approach

However achieving some kind of industry consensus on how best to represent and communicate nutrition information to consumers has proved difficult.

For example, food company ConAgra this year decided to launch its own nutrition labeling system in a bid to make it easier for consumers to get useful advice about the food they eat.

The company said that although the MyPyramid scheme was "widely recognized",​ it was difficult to follow and few consumers knew if the foods they chose would provide them with meaningful amounts of the key food groups.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also considering changes to nutrition facts labels in order to bring recommendations up to date with new information on diet and health. This could mean a revamp of reference values and mandatory nutrients.

As part of this review, it is looking at how consumers use the percent daily value information and if there is any related information that may promote a clearer understanding.

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