FDA Urged to Create New “Healthy Food” Labeling System

Companies’ Own Front-Label Symbols, Based on Different Criteria, Can Confuse or Mislead Consumers, Says CSPI


WASHINGTON—Kraft has a “Sensible Solution.”PepsiCo has a “Smart Spot.” The American Heart Association licenses its “heart-check” symbol. General Mills displays one or more of 26 different logos on what it calls a “Goodness Corner" on some of its packages. But the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says consumers can easily be confused or misled since the various programs have different aims and use inconsistent nutrition criteria. So today CSPI formally petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to design a national set of symbols to help consumers quickly identify healthier foods.

In a 31-page legal petition filed with the agency, CSPI said that one national set of easy-to-use symbols would be a valuable supplement to the current Nutrition Facts label. The United Kingdom has designed a system using green, yellow, and red dots to rank fats, sugar, and salt as low, medium, or high. The Swedish government has a system featuring a green keyhole-shaped symbol to identify the healthiest choices within a food category. CSPI says the FDA should review those and other programs and solicit comments from the public about how a similar system should be structured here.

“The supermarket is teeming with competing ‘healthy food’ symbols that run the gamut from highly helpful to fatally flawed,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But a prominent and reliable symbol on the fronts of packages would be a tremendous help to those harried shoppers racing through the supermarket. Not everyone has the time or knowledge to scrutinize the Nutrition Facts labels or to decode the symbols Kraft, PepsiCo, General Mills, or other companies happen to be using.”

And companies aren’t the only ones putting “healthy food” symbols on foods. The American Heart Association (AHA) licenses companies to use its “heart-check” mark on products meeting certain nutrition criteria. However, the AHA’s primary nutrition criteria do not consider trans fat, which promotes heart disease, or added sugar, which promotes tooth decay and contributes to obesity. Also, the dairy industry puts an official-looking “3-A-Day”symbol on cheese and other dairy products, no matter how high they are in saturated fat.

One of the best systems, CSPI says, was developed by the Hannaford supermarket chain in the Northeast, which uses sophisticated nutrition criteria as a basis for awarding to most products in its stores either one, two, three, or zero stars, which it displays alongside the price of the item. It ranks both its store-brand products and those of made by other companies. General Mills’ Chocolate Lucky Charms, for instance, receives no stars (it has too much sugar—50 percent by weight).

Though it doesn’t qualify for a Hannaford star, Chocolate Lucky Charms does bear the Heart Association’s heart-check mark (as do Trix, Cocoa Puffs, and other sugary cereals). Frito-Lay’s Munchies Kid Mix (containing, improbably, Cap’n Crunch cereal, mini pretzels, Cheetos, popcorn, and candy-coated chocolate pieces) bears PepsiCo’s “Smart Spot,” the criteria for which are overly generous when it comes to salt in snack foods. Similarly, General Mills ignores its products’ worst nutrition attributes and only considers the redeeming ones when it awards its products one or more of its 26 symbols.

CSPI says that the proliferation of rating schemes is a formula for confusion and deception. The Institute of Medicine has concluded that the “array of categories, icons, and other graphics, as well as the different standards employed by these companies may introduce some confusion, particularly for young consumers,” and that the FDA has not “yet fully explored its potential role” in encouraging industry-wide standardization.

“Establishing a uniform system of nutrition symbols can help consumers make sense of the mountains of diverse and often conflicting information and advice,” said Senator Tom Harkin, (D-IA), incoming chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Only with reliable, consistent, and easy-to-understand information can consumers take charge of their own health. Common-sense food labeling is good for Americans’ health. I’m hopeful that the FDA will respond positively to CSPI’s petition. If not, I may well seek legislative action to address this concern.”

According to CSPI, well-designed “healthy food” symbols would steer Americans away from foods that promote obesity, heart disease, and other serious health problems, and toward fresh and processed foods that promote good health.

Fourteen leading researchers and physicians joined CSPI in supporting a uniform, front-of-label healthy-food symbols. They include Drs. Alberto Ascherio, Eric Rimm, Meir Stampfer, and Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health and Drs. George Blackburn, Carlos Camargo and JoAnn Manson of Harvard Medical School.

CSPI acknowledges that its filing is only the beginning of what would be a lengthy rule-making process, but hopes that the proliferation of confusing and inconsistent symbols being used now will spur the FDA to act quickly.

“The FDA should tear down this Tower of Babel propped up by food companies, and give consumers the reliable information they need at a glance,” said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade, who was a driving force in winning passage of the 1990 law that led to the Nutrition Facts label.

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