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The Food Industry Tries to Redesign the Nutrition Label, Fails

The food industry tried to beat the FDA to the punch by redesigning the nutrition label first. Surprise: It might actually confuse consumers.

In January, food industry giants launched a new food label for the front of packaged foods—Nutrition Keys (above)—which was widely seen as an attempt to influence or divert the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's ongoing efforts to create better labeling. That's a problem.

In an opinion piece published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says that the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute’s label is a “unilateral, unscientific, preemptive approach taken by the food companies.” Brownell was even more blunt when I called him: "The industry has been given a chance to police itself and they've failed." In other words, it can't be trusted.

The label includes only four mandatory categories—calories, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar—and leaves plenty of room for food companies to highlight the nutrients of their choice. So rather than making nutritional information clearer, the design might actually confuse consumers now faced with rotating nutrients, making it more difficult to compare products.

Other nations are already testing out better alternatives, like Britain's “traffic light” label (above) that color-codes daily values as red for unhealthy, yellow for moderately good for you, and green for healthy. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway use the "keyhole" system (below), which indicates healthy food with a simple black or green keyhole mark of approval. If you see the keyhole, the food is deemed healthy.

Will we see that kind of Scandinavian simplicity here? Probably not. Brownell says the “keyhole” system wouldn't work in the United States because the food industry’s powerful lobby would block such a black-and-white system that categorized every food as either healthy or unhealthy. “The problem is that the industry mantra is that there is no bad food,” he says. “Why would the food industry want people to eat in a healthier way? That would mean they'd have to sell less food overall.”

Perhaps it's worth exploring a more qualitative approach. Brownell told me he'd like to see "a label that provides the consumers with the evaluative part, not just the numbers. They need to understand what those numbers mean." Considering what we're up against, I'd have to say I agree.

Lily is part of Rethink the Food Label, an ongoing collaboration with GOOD and News21. For more about the project, click here.

Top image via GMA; middle image via FSA; bottom image via NFA.

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