Will New Food Labels Make Americans Thinner?

2005 was the year of the whole grain. While nutritionists and dietitians had long touted the benefits of whole grains, it was food behemoths like General Mills and Kraft that had the financial capabilities of generating national buzz by transforming their classic products into more nutritional edibles. Nutritional fads are nothing new and neither are the reformulations processed foods undergo to cater to them. For example, Trix, that rainbow-hued confection with a sugar-induced white rabbit for a mascot, could now boast wholesome graininess on the side of its box. And while the cereal technically reduced its sugar content, it maintained the same number of calories (as well as a disturbing 13 grams of sugar per 30-gram portion). It was a superficial makeover designed to ease the consciences (but not the waistlines) of consumers.

What we choose to eat is often determined less by a food's nutritional value than by the way that nutritional information is packaged. The consumer watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest submitted a petition last November to the Food and Drug Administration advocating a national system of symbols to adorn packaged foods. The idea is to create an easy cheat sheet for consumers so they don't have to read through the fine print while grocery shopping.

This proposal follows the line of other CSPI projects that include adding calorie counts next to meals at chain restaurants and having higher nutritional standards for the solid and liquid candy sold in school vending machines. Advocating for transparency is difficult to argue against, which is probably why the FDA recently began preliminary meetings with corporations, public health officials, consumer advocacy groups, and others to discuss what a national labeling system would look like. The FDA said, of course, that such a system would be "voluntary" -- meaning, if the companies don't like it, they don't have to use it.

But food conglomerates like General Mills, PepsiCo, Kraft and Kellogg's have already anticipated such a push and begun affixing different symbols of their own on their products. The symbols, always colorful and cheerful, range in terms of usefulness. General Mills has a series of different buttons that resemble Boy Scout badges: a glass of milk for a "good source of calcium," a leaf for a "good source of fiber," a dumbbell for a "good source of iron" and so on. PepsiCo's "Smart Spot" is an exciting check mark awarded to those products that are able to meet one of the following requirements: contain at least 10 percent of a "targeted nutrient" like protein, fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin A, or vitamin C; are reduced in calories or bad things like fat, sodium, or sugar; or fit the ambiguous description: "formulated to have specific wealth or wellness benefits." With the bar so low, one wonders why every product doesn't have a green check next to it.

Kraft's system combines the two: teaming an image of a sun with the words "sensible solution." To earn the distinction of "sensible solution," a food product essentially has to be low in one of the typical food villains: fat, saturated fat, and sodium, or high in the food all-stars: some vitamin, calcium and, of course, whole grains. The philosophy underpinning all of these different logos is the implication that one healthy aspect of a food product negates all potentially harmful ones; the logic also works conversely, where the absence of one or more of these "bad" ingredients suggests that the product as a whole is healthful. The former is whole grain Lucky Charms; the latter is Diet Pepsi.

Kellogg's system is most like the one that the CSPI suggests might be useful for U.S. consumers because it resembles the U.K.'s labeling system. Kellogg's highlights specific components: fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and calories, and lists the respective amount per portion and what percentage of the daily value it constitutes. For example, Apple Jacks have 120 calories per portion (six percent of what a person with a 2,000 calorie diet needs), .5 grams of fat (one percent), 150 milligrams of sodium (another one percent), and 15 grams of sugar (with a suspicious* in place of the percentage value). The U.K. system, which includes fat, saturated fats, sugar and salt, is presented the same way but goes a little further by color-coding the components with a green-is-good, orange-is-OK and red-is-bad system -- a bit like the Homeland Security terror alert.

Currently, this privatized system of nutritional branding is a slightly more sophisticated form of the ubiquitous braggadocios -- "94 percent fat free" or "50 percent less sugar" -- that scream across the front of boxes. The shift to more refined marketing tactics reflects the current cultural pulse surrounding food and nutrition: Well over 60 percent of Americans are considered overweight, and the obesity rate is at an all-time high. Americans are dying from what the Center for Disease Control is calling an "epidemic" -- one that we are supposed to believe can be prevented with good consumer choices.

The CSPI petition, though, does not seem to be challenging the notion that obesity is the result of an individual's bad choices, but rather agreeing with it. Its goal is that a national system would create more well-informed consumers. "You could send a child to the store with 20 bucks and say, 'Johnny, you can buy whatever you want as long as it has a green dot -- and you can get one red-dot food," CSPI Director Michael Jacobson told the AP last month. A new labeling system would underscore certain, important aspects of food products, but would neither broaden the choices that consumers have nor eliminate the frequent culprits in processed foods like refined sugars, grains and the ever-present high fructose corn syrup (just check nearly any loaf of bread).

The underlying subtext of the petition was that Americans need to be shifting their diets away from packaged products and toward more fruits, vegetables and home-cooked meals:

"The typical American diet is too high in foods rich in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, salt and added sugars, and too low in fiber- and micronutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as low-fat calcium rich foods."

Furthermore, it adds, "Thousands more lives could be saved if people ate fewer foods rich in saturated fat and more fruits and vegetables."

A red dot would hopefully be the equivalent of a cigarette warning label, only its meaning would be: Eating this product may cause obesity and lead to death. But it's questionable that such a system alone would really propel consumers to buy a celery stick over a package of Hot Pockets. CSPI claims that one of the best nutritional guides came from a supermarket chain called Hannaford in the Northeast. Hannaford instituted a three-star system that avoided the marketing ploys of corporations by taking a more holistic approach to grading a product. So if something had too much sugar, then that would immediately disqualify it from having any stars -- despite the presence of whole grains. According to consumer patterns, the star system has in fact changed the way consumers shop, but only in terms of which processed food consumers choose. Sales among cereals went up or down according to the star rating, but the constant left unchanged by the ratings were fresh fruits and vegetables.

What the CSPI is urging the FDA to create -- essentially more transparency -- should be a given. Still, it is unlikely to be the magic solution to quelling America's obesity problem. In a certain light, giving more information could be a double-edged sword: It could be used to further blame individuals for making "bad" decisions because, if there are red dots all over boxes, then shouldn't consumers know better?

What is largely missing is a holistic look at the economic and nutritional structures in place. Many of the consumers in question about are likely from low-income communities, where fresh and diverse fruits and vegetables are rare. At the crux of the problem is a difference between disseminating more information and creating a situation where better choices could be made. I doubt that consumers would be shocked to see a bag of Lays potato chips sporting a scary red dot. The battle between a carton of Cheez-Its and a peach is unfair at best; behind packaged food is a multibillion dollar industry, where enormous subsidies are used to chemically transform corn and soybeans into snacks and cereals and slick advertising equates those products with gastronomic pleasure. Can a red dot really beat all that?

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