The icons - which highlight calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar per serving plus two (optional) ‘nutrients to encourage’ - will be rolled out across all GMA and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) member products by the end of this year - representing 80% of packaged foods in retail.
They do not - unlike some competing front-of-pack labels - attempt to guide shoppers towards ‘healthier’ products or rank foods as good, bad or ugly, but instead highlight key data from the Nutrition Facts panel to help consumers make informed choices, EVP Sean McBride told FoodNavigator-USA.
“All of the research we’ve seen indicates that consumers don’t want to be told what to do. They want a facts-based scheme, not an interpretive one, because everyone has different priorities. Some people are watching their sodium intakes, other people are looking at fiber, or calories, for example.”
Are the labels ‘working’? And how should we define and measure success?
With this in mind, the success of Facts Up Front will not be measured by the extent to which it alters purchasing patterns or encourages manufacturers to reformulate products, but in terms of consumer understanding, he said.
“Facts Up Front is a tool to help consumers make informed choices, so we will measure its success in terms of whether consumers are aware of it, whether they understand it, whether they use it, and how engaged they are with it. And we’ve discussed these metrics with the FDA to ensure their authority and accuracy.”
Consumers will be surveyed at regular intervals to assess how much progress has been made against these objectives, he said.
As for the scheme’s impact on manufacturers, he added: “Our members have been reformulating their products to reduce saturated fat, sugar and sodium for years. I don’t think Facts up Front is linked to that. It’s a tool for consumers.”
Asked whether Facts Up Front icons had changed shopping patterns, for example by boosting sales of products lower in sodium, sugar or fat than rivals in a given category, the GMA is not collecting this kind of data, he said.
However, it expects to get anecdotal feedback as the roll-out continues.
Women aged 25-49 with school aged children key target group
The key aim of the new FactsUpFront.org website is to help raise awareness - particularly among women aged 25-49 with school-aged children - about their daily nutritional needs and how they can use the icons to help meet them.
A nutritional calculator - the most popular part of the site - also allows users generate personalized nutritional goals by entering their age, gender, height, weight and activity levels, reflecting the fact that not everyone’s energy requirements in particular are the same, said McBride.
Another part of the site proving popular is a section showing people how they might boost intakes of ‘nutrients to encourage’ such as potassium, vitamin A and iron, he said.
We are providing consumers with the knowledge and tools they need to build a healthful diet
The next phase of the consumer education program will be an advertising campaign launching in late 2013 or early 2014 coupled with instore marketing and web-based initiatives.
While Facts Up Front has been welcomed by many stakeholders, it has not been met with universal approval, however, with some stakeholders arguing that consumers need a more ‘interpretive’ scheme that alerts busy shoppers to healthier products via stars, icons or colors.
And while the resources section of FactsUpFront.org cites a 2010 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report praising some aspects of the industry-backed scheme, it neglects to mention that the IOM’s final report (published in 2011) recommended a different approach.
The IOM concluded: “It is time for a move away from front-of-package systems that mostly provide nutrition information on foods or beverages but don’t give clear guidance about their healthfulness, and toward one that encourages healthier choices through simplicity, visual clarity, and the ability to convey meaning without written information.”
The IOM’s favored scheme instead ascribes a rating of zero, one, two or three points (or ticks) to any given product depending on whether certain thresholds are met for saturated and trans-fatty acids, sodium and added sugars.
But are the alternatives any better?
As the IOM itself recognizes, however, no FOP scheme is perfect, with simpler schemes often oversimplifying the science, and more complex schemes baffling consumers.
For example, while color-based approaches might appear more consumer-friendly, they have also been criticized for failing to take portion sizes into account or basing their criteria purely on negatives (fat, salt, sugar) rather than positives (fiber, vitamins).
(So diet cola gets a green light because it has no salt, fat or sugar, while cheese gets a red light owing to its fat and sodium content, despite the fact that it also contains beneficial nutrients.)
With no clear consensus on this issue on either side of the Atlantic, scores of different labels are now appearing on foods, from red lights and green dots, to ticks, stars, nutrient density scores, healthy eating logos, Facts Up Front labels and (in Europe) GDA (guideline daily amount) labels.