Hopes for new labeling program to become industry standard

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Smart choices program, Nutrition

A new food labeling system has been introduced by a coalition of food manufacturers, which aims to bring clarity and consistency to the market, as industry-wide consensus is still lacking.

Companies such as ConAgra Foods, Unilever and General Mills plan to adopt the Smart Choices Program for front-of-pack (FOP) nutrition labeling, to help consumers make smarter nutrition choices and improve public health, in a marketplace “currently cluttered by multiple systems”.

Health problems such as obesity and lifestyle-related heart disease have added pressure on the food industry to play a greater role in educating consumers about nutrition. Some analysts have also identified the increasing interest in nutritional information as a marketing opportunity for food and beverage manufactures.

However, achieving industry consensus on how best to represent and communicate nutrition information has proved difficult and there have been calls for tighter regulation.

This month Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was criticized by the Government Accountability Office watchdog for failing to adequately crack down on false and misleading food labeling and suggested an initiative similar to the European-style Guideline Daily Amount (GDA). A system recently adopted by Mars US.

Amanda Sourry, senior vice president and general manager for Foods, Unilever US, said they hope the Smart Choices Program will become the “standard for FOP nutritional labeling in the US”.

Susan Crockett, vice president of General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, said the system“harmonizes and unifies various competing approaches, reducing potential confusion and making it easier for consumers to identify healthy food choices and compare calorie and serving information at-a-glance”.

The voluntary program, headed by The Keystone Center, a non-profit organization specializing in public health problems, will begin appearing on packaging next year.

Other companies the organizers said were likely to sign up include Coca-Cola, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Wal-Mart.

Limiting nutrients

The program’s nutrition criteria, developed for product categories such as beverages, cereals, meats, dairy and snacks, relies on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and additional authoritative guidance from consensus science, including FDA standards.

To qualify for the symbol, products cannot exceed standards for "nutrients to limit", ​which includes trans fat, cholesterol, added sugars and sodium. There are also "nutrients to encourage"​, such as calcium, potassium, and various vitamins, as well as "food groups to encourage"​ including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Calories per serving will also appear on the front.

The GDA system, developed by The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU, gives specific amounts of fat, salt and sugar in products as a percentage of the advised consumption per day.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA in 2006 to develop a universal front-of-label system and the FDA held a public hearing in 2007. No action has been taken as yet.

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