Thursday, November 30, 2006

A better "healthy food" labeling system

Have you noticed the proliferation of "healthy food" labeling systems lately?

They remind me of a line from Michael Franti's song: "They're telling me to choose, but there's only lies to choose from."

The American Heart Association (AHA), for example, charges a fee to allow manufacturers to put its "heart check" symbol on selected foods, but the selection criteria don't consider trans fat or give much weight to sugar content (see the image at the bottom of this post). So, at your grocery store, you may find the AHA "heart check" symbol on Chocolate Lucky Charms or Cocoa Puffs. Lucky indeed!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to initiate a national discussion about possible improvements to "healthy food" labeling. The public interest group asked FDA to solicit public comments on appropriate nutrition criteria and promising examples of communication tools used in other countries (see the stop light image from the United Kingdom at right).

It is just the sort of thing a pro-market pro-nutrition food policy advocate likes to see. What choices would consumers make if the nutrition label were so clear and graphic that it would be pointless for the manufacturer to clutter it with misleading claims and misdirections? If you are an optimist, you may imagine choices good enough to reverse the current nutrition-related epidemics. If you are a pessimist, you may imagine little change from current behavior, and little harm in trying. In either case, this approach seems respectful of people's right to know what the market is offering them and then to make their own decisions about food.

The modest petition is signed by a number of researchers in nutrition, epidemiology, and food policy, including among others Alberto Ascherio, Eric Rimm, Meir Stampfer, Walter Willett, George Blackburn, Carlos Camargo, and myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's amazing to me that food rating guides are being proposed as a way to help consumers make healthy choices. We have been working on a system at our food bank that does just that called CHOP - Choose Healthy Options - at our fod bank for the last 4 years at least and are getting ready for national release early 2007 to food banks across the country. Years ago when I proposed the concept overwhelming response was that there are no bad foods and that all foods have a place in the diet, no one has the right to police the food supply and how others eat, etc. all in the context of emergency food. It has been an uphill climb ever since but a lot of progress has been made in the last year and a half, so much that America's Second Harvest is, for the first time in its 25 year history, considering the nutrient quality of the food it distributes as a measure of success! CHOP is based on sound nutrition science and uses the USDA as its authority (perhaps not the best, but maybe the biggest authority). The CSPI system looks similar in some ways, although on the surface, our system looks a bit more refined.

CHOP's goal is to identify healthier choices, provide education as to why that is important, and then allow people to make an informed decision, all within the context of the 'emergency' food system.

An aside, I am not a blogger, not reader of blogs, this in fact is my first time with this. But I was encouraged by one of your regular readers to take the time to respond so I did. Although I have no weight in the larger world, I would have loved to sign on to the petition from CSPI. Food Banks should be a part of this discussion, considering the millions of pounds they distribute to some of the most vulnerable people each month.